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Riverside County Fair and Date Festival Returns After Two Years

Butler Amusements lit the sky at the 2023 Riverside County Fair and Date Festival
Photo by Skip Fredricks

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The Riverside County Fair and National Date Festival has yet to have finalized attendance numbers as of mid-March, but regardless, the numbers are sure to be huge. Both the fair officials and Butler Amusements which ran the midway, cite having a record-breaking year.

The jubilant fair and festival return was the first, following two-years of COVID-19 shutdowns. Held February 16 through 27, the fair and festival offered advance online admission for all ages at $10, and a carnival wristband for $30. At the gate, general admission was $15, seniors were $13, and kids were $12. A season pass allowing unlimited fair admission was available online only for $30. Children under age 5 were admitted free. As for the carnival, online, the ride wristband was priced at $30; at the gate, price varied by date between $32 and $37.

There were several discounted and free days for the fair, including a Kids Day when all children ages 12 and under were offered free admission, and free Military Appreciation and First Responders days.

While in the past, Grandstand Arena entertainment was included in admission price, entrance to these events now required ticketing. Numbered, reserved seating was available with bleacher capacity at 3,000, field level seating at 900, and VIP boxes at a 400-person capacity. Having reserved seating allowed those specifically interested in events such as the fair's demolition derby, monster truck and concert events to be certain of attendance. Each event required a separate ticket. Top ticket sellers included singer-songwriter Pancho Barraza, Mariachi Sol de Mexico, and The Fray, as well as the PRCA Rodeo, Demolition Derby, and Monster Trucks rallies, which filled the Grandstand Arena. The Demolition Derby, always a fair favorite, ran two days rather than a single day this year. At the Pageant Stage, Out at the Fair offered a variety of performances on Saturday the 18th including Drag Bingo.

Pacific Coast Entertainment handled the staging for the Grandstand Arena concert events as well as three other entertainment stages, including the fair's Beer Garden Stage and Pageant Stage.

The biggest change this year was the fair operator. Pickering Events LLC signed a 5-year contract with the County of Riverside after winning a competitive bid process. Chris Pickering, the principal partner in Pickering Events, was delighted with the event's strong turn out and predicted that following this triumphant return, “Future years will see its growth.”

Also new this year: a renewed food-focus on the fair and festival's namesake food item, dates. Each vendor presented at least one individual item on their menu that included dates, from bacon-wrapped dates with chipotle dip at Notel's Mexican Food to date BBQ sauce on pulled pork from Chillin' and Grillin', Sierra Kettle Korn's date syrup corn, Pepe's Mariscos date tea, and classic treats such as date shakes served up by Branders Texas Donuts, date bars from Aguas Compitas, and raw dates from Candy's, according to fair media purveyor Merry Aronson of MPower Media. Also on Aronson's list of popular date treats: date chocolate chip cookie sundae, date brookie & date toffee parfait both from Mom's Bakeshoppe, and churro fries drizzled with date syrup from Fries Galore. In the fairgrounds' Taj Mahal Building, dates were also sold for purchase. County Fair Cinnamon Rolls brought back their classic rolls – a recipe dating back to 1978. But this year the fair favorite brought a new twist: a cinnamon roll with cream cheese frosting, bacon, and maple syrup as a topper. Food sales were 10% higher than the last time the fair ran, squeaking in before pre-pandemic closures in 2020.

Adding to the fair food fun, The Cooking Channel's Carnival Eats filmed some of the bounty over a four-day period and is planning three episodes for air in the summer.  

And of course, there was the midway. Butler Amusements returned to the event for the 20th year. Despite one stormy, rainy weekend, the carnival saw record numbers, Butler reports. In fact, the company set an all-time revenue record on Sunday, February 19th, and overall had its three highest days of gross receipts in its entire 20-year history at the festival. Top draws for thrill-craving attendees were The Giant Wheel, Exscream Machine, and Hawaiian Express. The Kids' Carnival was separated from the other rides, and also served as a strong draw for the company.

Butler Amusements is the largest carnival company in the Western United States, providing more than 125 amusement rides for over 120 different events annually. The company began in 1970, starting with a single fair contract for the Redwood Empire Fair in Ukiah, Calif., and has grown its route and added to its rides ever since. In 2022, the carnival announced a new KMG XXL to its ride options, to be delivered in 2024.

The return of the Junior Livestock Auction saw the sale of some 187 animals and $248,000 raised to benefit local youth groups. Working in conjunction, Pickering Events, Butler Amusements, and The Bailey-Findley Foundation also awarded $24,000 in scholarships to 14 graduating Riverside County high school students.

Along with the carnival rides and food concession, fairgoers also enjoyed watching performances such as racing pigs and Sea Lion Splash acts, as well as performances of a pirate show, a hypnotist, the annual Date Pageant presentation with its elaborate permanent backdrop, and many community groups. There were camel and pony rides, too, along with an expansive Gem and Mineral Pavilion.

From baby farm animals to BMX stunt exhibitions, from a master gardening exhibition to a date tasting event replete with a date “sommelier” explaining date type and use, the fair's expansive profile far exceeded the scaled-down Thrillville event held in 2022.

Speaking for Pickering, Aronson says “The goal of this first festival since the three-year pandemic hiatus was to bring back the complete fair as in years past. The goal for next few years is to expand with some new attractions each year.” Bringing back the fair was certainly a rousing success. Pickering says his company is excited to be a part of the event “for the long haul.”

According to county supervisor V. Manuel Perez, “The tremendous turnout for the Date Festival is a testament to how important this event is to our community.”

The Riverside County Fair and National Date Festival will return next year on Feb. 16th. It will once again be sponsored by the Fantasy Springs Casino.
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