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One Great Date: The Riverside County Fair and National Date Festival Returns for 76th Annual Fair

Butler Amusements provided the Midway for the Riverside County Fair & Date Fest

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The Riverside County Fair and National Date Festival returned for its 76th year, February 16 to 25th, at the Riverside County Fairgrounds in Indio. With a bevy of rides from Butler Amusements, acts on every stage, Demolition Derby, national act concert performers, and a popular petting zoo replete with baby animals, the dates for this date fest were sweet.

This year's festival saw a 14% increase in gate admission according to the fair's PR partner, Merry Aronson at MPower Media. Anticipation for an expanded fair program drew an eager crowd, she says. “Fairgrounds CEO Chris Pickering had a full year to work on the event and put a lot into entertainment this year. There were several new stages added this year and every stage stayed busy constantly, whether it was with a rock or cover band, performing sea lions, dancers on stilts – there were so many more attractions. Everything was up this year, so it was more exciting. There were more choices for visitors than ever, in part because he had more time to prepare than the previous year.”

Pickering himself notes “We increased our grounds entertainment budget by 50% this year and so we're just really activating more fun and more to do.” New were a family stage with magician and ventriloquist, and the return of the Cooking with Dates stage. There was a larger date tasting booth as well.

Fair admission tickets were priced at $12 for presale, $15 at the gate to enter, with kids and senior prices available at $10.

Aronson notes that “Butler Amusements did a terrific job, with the rides divided into two separate areas, one for kiddie rides and one for grown-up and thrill rides.” Among the most popular were a giant roller coaster, the Zipper, and of course the big wheel. Carnival wristbands cost $30 and were good for any one day at the festival.

In their second year promoting the fest, Aronson called the festival their main focus and client. “We do all the PR, marketing, TV, radio, and print. We know our demographic: half of the Coachella Valley is Hispanic, and there is large gay demographic, too. So, we do specific marketing to those audiences since they are a big part of our attendance. We tried to make sure that this year we had plenty of coverage, and we had live remotes on the fairgrounds from the first day to the last.”
Aronson cites some of the big standouts from this year's event as including “$22,000 given out to 11 students for high school scholarships to colleges, our big parade on President's Day, both our Monster Trucks and Demolition Derby events, and our enhanced petting zoo. We had two baby goats and three lambs born during the festival, and that was pretty exciting for people to see.”

Fair food was a fun focus. Aronson adds: “Each of our food vendors this year had a tie-in with dates, whether it was date drizzles over tacos or date syrup at the coffee stand, absolutely every booth had a date element.”

Perhaps in part for this reason, food sales rose 15%.  Some of the more popular items included BBQ meats, freeze-dried date candy, Country Fair Cinnamon Rolls – which are always a hit for the event —  and date battered corn dogs from West Coast Weenies, which were new this year. Returning hit treats included date shakes from Texas Donuts, and a Date Flight tasting sampler from Candy's Dates. Other hits included bacon and cheese stuffed dates, date pulled-pork sandwiches, deep fried dates, Fannie's Fabulous Funnel Cakes drizzled with 100% Deglet Noor Date Syrup, Churro Fries with Candy Date Nuggets and Date Syrup, a frozen date kabob, and kettle corn with date syrup, not to mention a date cheeseburger.

Along with the food, the sound of music was everywhere. Among the main stage hit musical acts this year were Smash Mouth, Natasha Bedingfield with special guest David Hernandez, and Diamond Rio. Mexican groups Voz De Mando and Los Ex de la Banda performed as well. Tickets ranged from $10-$35 depending upon the show. There was also a pro-rodeo event, with eight separate events, such as bareback riding, barrel racing, breakaway roping, bull riding, saddle bronc, steer wrestling, team roping and tie-down roping. PRCA Pro Rodeo tickets as well as Demolition Derby and Monster Truck event tickets ranged between $5 to $50.

New this year was “Out of the Fair Day,” celebrating LGBTQ+ family friendly activities. Landa Plenty hosted Drag Bingo with co-host Shania Satisfaction. Three hours of bingo play cost $15 in advance, $20 on the day-of. Prizes included gift cards and tickets to see Natasha Bedingfield & David Hernandez at the fair's concert stage.
Free shows included popular performances by the Mariachi Divas, RadioReady Band, and the All-Alaskan Racing Pigs as well as the Sea Lion Splash; the Date Pageant, which ran nightly, was a big draw as well. There was a special appearance of the Budweiser Clydesdales, performances by the Science Wizard, and the entertaining Chef Laundry making culinary magic and fun on the venue's cooking stage. There were camel rides, rock painting, and even a tamale-making contest for fair guests to enjoy, too. The Date Festival's “One Arabian Night: A Magical Musical Romp” pageant was led by a new director this year, Ken Prescott, and continues to be a unique festival draw.

Event competitors increased this year by 87%, including still-entries like art, photography, food, and domestic arrangements.

Even the weather, which can be capriciously hot or rainy in the desert in February, cooperated. “With ten days of perfect weather, the community came out in droves to celebrate together,” Pickering said.

In short, the fair and festival made a major comeback for a fair that experienced a three-year closure due to the pandemic, at which time there were even discussions of moving the event outside of the Coachella Valley. When it finally returned last year, Chris Pickering was the new manager, and while 2023's return was quite robust, this year's edition helmed by Pickering was more so.

While 2023's event came together in a rush with only 6 months to prepare, this year was the first that allowed the new management a full year to prepare, including adding vendors, repainting stages, improving bathrooms, adding decorations and a new fair marquee as well as an enhanced fast-scan security system. Per Pickering, over $2.5 million went into grounds refurbishment in all.

Just as the fair and fest continued its legacy of supporting the region, Fantasy Springs Resort Casino has continued its own legacy, agreeing to continue to support the event as presenting sponsor through 2027. Fantasy Springs has been the presenting sponsor of the event for 25 years.

Overall, it was hard to believe that the fair once struggled so much financially that the county considered closing or moving the fair to another area. Today, county supervisor Manuel Perez was quoted as saying "I'm happy to say that's not the case. My plan is to ensure that this fair stays here forever."
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