The 103rd annual Manatee County Fair took place from Jan. 17 though Jan. 27.
While overall attendance was down a little for 2019, with a turnout of a bit more than 165,000 fair attendees, Daniel West, fair manager, says the first day of the fair broke a record with the largest community turnout in fair history – a whopping 18,000 people came out for the event.
The last day of the fair, unfortunately, was said to be a wash out. Ticket prices were reduced to $5 each and the gates also closed a couple hours early.
“It can't be helped as we can't control Mother Nature,” West shares. “But overall, we had a great ten days of the fair, with great attendance.”
Admission was $9 for adults, $8 for senior citizens and $6 for children. Children ages five and under were admitted free, and military personnel received entry for $6.
A few special days included Kids Day at the Fair, where children received free admission during select hours; Senior Citizens Day; and a free Gate Day, where visitors also received free admission during select hours.
Midway, Food & Other Entertainment
Belle City Amusements provided 50 midway rides, complete with a Kiddieland. Armband specials for rides ranged from $15 to $25, depending on the day.
The Manatee County Fair featured more than 40 food vendors this year. These included a new gyro stand, dessert stand and barbecue vendor. The delectable strawberry shortcake making station was still a big hit at the fair. The station has been a staple of the fair and has been featured by the Church of the Rock of Palmetto for more than 20 years.
In addition to the annual corn dog eating contest, visitors also had the chance to watch or participate in the first ever doughnut eating contest.
Musical entertainment included Mark Wills, who just received induction into the Grand Ole Opry; Rhonda Vincent; Yesterdayze Band; The Keystone Barbershop Quartet; The Dennis Lee Show; and The Brothers Everly Tribute Band.
Visitors had the opportunity to observe whimsically decorated hay bales throughout the grounds and take in strolling acts including Rock-it the Robot and Grandpa Cratchet. Other attractions were the Kid's Celebration Family Game Show, Les McDowell's “Cowboy Camp,” Show Me Safari's Pig Races, a petting zoo, The Amazing Bubble Factory and The Wade Henry Show.
“The Wade Henry Show always does a great job, and Dennis Lee has always been a mainstay at our fair,” adds West.
Fair goers could also check out the first annual Doggy Pageant and the popular cheerleading competition.
The Manatee County Fair wouldn't be the same without paying homage to its agricultural roots, and West says this year the livestock exhibitors totaled 600. “For a single county, we have a really big livestock show,” he says. “We attribute this to our 4-H and FFA chapters.”
Other agricultural attractions visitors had the opportunity to observe included exhibits and lectures on how to successfully grow fruit trees, and the ins and outs of winter veggie gardening.
Also new for this year was the naming of the fair's exhibit hall, which West says is getting ready to become a “rentable” building. The structure was named Veteran's Hall during the 2nd annual Veteran's Parade.
Radio and television continue to be the biggest outlets for Manatee County Fair advertisements, though social media outreach has also increased in recent years and has an important role to play in getting the word out. West says advertising through weekly regional newspapers also continues to be a vital key factor when it comes to drawing people to the fair every year.
“Our county is growing by leaps and bounds,” he says. “We like to use the weeklies to hit different areas.”
Challenges & Looking Ahead
Manatee County Fair has grown exponentially since its inception, keeping pace with the growth of the community. The fair has been housed on the same grounds since 1949 and one of the biggest challenges it has faced in recent years has been the issue of space.
West says that while it's a good challenge to have, with the explosion of fair growth as well as the midway continuing to expand, the 32-acre piece of property in the middle of Palmetto just doesn't always cut it. There have been some issues with the availability of on-site parking space and West predicts that as the fair continues to get bigger and better in the future, changes will definitely have to be implemented. However, solutions are being researched, and he is confident the answers will be found.
“There are properties available around the fair, areas of parking to trolley and possibly lease,” he says. “We are working on it now.”
Ultimately, the Manatee County Fair does not show signs of slowing down anytime soon. The annual event is much-beloved and continues to play an integral role in the county.
“It's a real grass-roots effort,” West says as he reflects on how important the fair is to the community. “From one end of the county to the other, we have more than 350,000 people. It's a big county. So many different communities throughout the county all have people involved with the fair,” he continues. “It's the one time of year when people come together. We call it a big family reunion. Everyone takes part in it – this is their fair.”