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Florida State Fair Heartbreaker: Closing Weekend Rain Washes Out Record-Breaking Advanced Ticket Sales & Opening Day Admissions
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Who knows what other records could've been set, if not for a rained out final weekend? The Florida State Fair started robustly, high attendance, record days, healthy spending – all optimum antecedents for a trailblazer of an event, but then the rains came, washing away the 2024 fair's hopes for a record total-attendance year.

It's a scenario of frustration and diminished expectations that's all too familiar to the outdoor event businesses which thrive or fail  at the mercy of Mother Nature's whims. “We had one of the best fairs operationally in my 8-year history,” said Cheryl Flood, Executive Director of the Florida State Fair. “However, on the last weekend, we had severe weather on our two busiest days that naturally affected our overall attendance and ultimately had a negative financial impact. Attendance was affected by severe weather that resulted in early closures and reduced operating hours on the final, and traditionally the most highly attended, days of fair.”

According to Flood, the 2024 event was 16 percent lower than the 2023 turnout of 405,888. “Final attendance for the twelve-day fair was down compared to last year.  Specific days within the twelve days did set attendance records; however, the total attendance was not a record given our two largest attended days were complete washouts with heavy rain. Weather was seasonally moderate with the exception of the final Saturday and Sunday where severe rainstorms caused major disruptions to fair operations”


Smile Together

How good was it going until the drenched denouement? “Prior to the severe weather on the final weekend, the FSF was poised to hit all-time record attendance,” she mournfully explained. “To that point, we enjoyed several record days, including: Highest paid attendance on opening day in the past 10 years; Highest attendance on record for a Thursday; Highest attendance on President's Day (last day of fair) in the last 11 years and highest paid attendance on this day since 2005.”

One reason the fair was on track for monumental successes was the 2024 advertising campaign, with a budget of $550,000, the same as 2023. The media allocation was also comparable to the prior fair, except for a shift of some funding from Direct Digital Advertising to Out-Of-Home –Print 4.5 percent; Broadcast  36 percent; OOH  25 percent; Digital Direct Adv. 27 percent; Social/Digital Content 7.5 percent.

The marketing theme of the fair was one that invoked the literal happiness at the core of this community gathering – “Smile Together” – and took a more deliberative approach to social media platforms by implementing a more targeted methodology. “We utilized and collaborated with more third-party digital media assets to expand audience and reach specific target segments including young adults and active families with young children,” she said.  “More video content was deployed than in past years. We took advantage of trending videos [on TikTok]  which was very effective in reaching a younger demographic.”

The fair also took a more proactive stance when engaging with fairgoers via social media. “We have found that our patrons appreciate and are providing us positive feedback for everyone's efforts,” she said. “Referral from a friend or neighbor is what can really drive attendance. If you can get your patrons talking positively about their “State Fair” experience, from a marketing perspective that is the fastest way we can grow attendance, by word of mouth. In addition, communicating with them effectively whether it be through social media, by video or where they look to find their entertainment for the weekend, is key to assisting them in choosing us for spending their entertainment dollars.”



Demographic Targeting   

In addition, the fair conducted market research prior to the event in devising their marketing and promotional strategies for this year's event. One of the key findings was that the post-lockdown infrastructure and capital improvements implemented by the Florida State Fair has increased the event's integrality to the community. “We continued to receive extremely positive feedback about changes that we initiated last year to really improve our guest experience including more seating areas, less duplication in food choices, new and more contemporary entertainment options, emphasis on cleanliness, implementation of a youth admissions policy and more,” said Flood.

The research also indicated that fairgoers were slightly-but-still-statistically-significantly more cost-conscious prior to the fair than a year ago. “We continued to hear overall sentiment suggesting consumers are choiceful in where to spend entertainment dollars and continue to look for value as well as consider absolute cost in household decisions.”

These findings come amid reports that inflation may be slowing but not vanishing, and  prompted Flood to emphasize price and value in ways not seen since the last decade's recession-era fairs. “In this market, given the vast choices in entertainment options, we had to promote affordability and value.  We expanded our gate promotions, specifically $3 Thursday, to provide a lower cost, weekday option for tight budgets.”

These promotional tweaks that addressed inflation seemed sufficient grease for the consumer wheels. Spending was on-par with Pandemic-era events. Prices may be eating away at the family's budget, but consumer confidence remains high. “Overall, vendors were pleased with the consumer spend.”



It was the second year of more admission restrictions, especially regarding unaccompanied minors, which Flood noted had a positive effect on spending:  “The youth admissions policy has created a more positive environment for vendors as it leads to more qualified buyers on premise, and the enhanced footprint created more space for seating and essentially created longer dwell times within areas dedicated to eating and drinking that led to increased food/beverage sales.

Fairgoers warmly received the new fair mascot, Sunny, best described as a caricature of a sun in Bermuda shorts. According to the official statement from the Florida State Fairgrounds: “Sunny radiates joy and will bring it to visitors of all ages….with the introduction of Sunny, the Florida State Fairgrounds brings a face to the property that locals, Florida residents and visitors from around the country all hold special memories at and events that guests look forward to year-round. Sunny gives guests someone to connect with and embodies the spirit of the fairgrounds, celebrating life, fun and the endless possibilities that come with each day and each event at the fairgrounds.”

“Marketing efforts from our new mascot and community engagement to our Smile Together Campaign and a dramatic improvement in our earned media presence paid off as we experienced record-setting, advance ticket sales which positioned us for record attendance,” said Flood.

Other new attractions this year included: Weekend fireworks, Silent Disco, First Friday Grove Party, concert with national recording duo Tigerlily Gold; New Ag Hall of Fame Hologram Theatre, Thank a Farmer Exhibit; Secret Walls live mural competitions, 3D Chalk Art live, and a Florida Wildlife Corridor Photography Exhibit.

Midway

The fair's independent Midway, coordinated by Wade Shows, showcased 89 total rides.  Frank Zaitshik said the company has a continued commitment to bring the newest and best equipment in the country year after year to the event.  “We were hoping to debut Iconic Midway Ride's new XXL ride and our new Super Fun House this year, but production dealays prevented that from happening.  They will both be at the fair next year however.”

The layout did include a commitment to rest areas, especially in the heart of kiddie land, an area anchored by Wade Show's double decker carousel.  Zaitshik said the fair went very well operationally in 2024, with “very few bumps in the road”.  

Zaitshik also lamented the weather closing weekend.  "The carnival and the fair have never been as well positioned to set record numbers as were were in 2024.  In the end, we were incredibly lucky to have finished as well as we did.”



Fair Cuisine

Occurring in the first quarter, the Florida State Fair is scrutinized as being the place where fair trends – especially food & beverage fads – first appear. The fair offered 195 food vendors, 32 of which were midway vendors. Among the new menu items vying for taste buds were reimagined fair classics: Temperamental Hog Funnel Cake; Pop Rock Pickles; BBQ Fried Burrito; Barbie Funnel Cake; Bang Bang Tacos,  and Florida Quesadilla.

Flood noted that hottest sellers among food concessions were: Chocolate Dipped Strawberry Iced Tea; Fried Spam Grilled Cheese and Banana Cream Pie Funnel Cake  
But food, midways and marketing can only do so much when the closing of a fair is a washout. “The attendance and revenue gap due to the severe weather on our largest volume days left a shortfall on the financial results of our 2024 Fair,” she said.



The Florida State Fair gained its footing after the COVID disruption last year with a record-breaking event. This not only lessened the wounding disappointment of 2024, but remains a foundation for the near-term. “Our planning to continue to build on our 2023 successes by prioritizing and improving the guest experience was spot on.  We were extremely pleased with the quality and execution of our fair which was echoed by vendors, partners, and our visitors throughout social media and in all direct feedback channels.  We also received accolades from the community, law enforcement and our guests for prioritizing the safety of our fair, and our success in providing a beautiful and family-friendly environment.  As a result of these efforts, we saw a significant decrease in ejections, arrests, and related issues due to the Youth Admissions Policy and enhanced security policies and presence.
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