Forget the sugar plums, my head is dancing with visions of sour pickles, buttery corn cobs, bags of honey cotton candy, powdered sugar-dusted fried dough, gigantic pumpkins, nursing pink piglets and bristly furred goats. And you know what that means don’t you? It’s time for the North Carolina State Fair.
Back when we were newbies to this great state, my husband and I made our very first venture into Raleigh for the annual State Fair. Having come from more urban parts, we had no idea what to expect. Strolling the exhibits, we were pleasantly surprised by the discovery of all the treasures our new home-state had to offer. Like kids in a candy store, we were enthralled by all the sights and smells (okay, we could have lived without the aroma of cow manure), but mostly we were thoroughly impressed by the diversity of talent on display.
The next year we eagerly included our own entries. My husband shared his homemade raisins and canned fig jelly while I submitted a hand-sewn teddy bear. We didn’t take home any blue ribbons that year, but we had the satisfaction of seeing our creations side-by-side with those of so many other talented southern artists.
Once our family size began expanding, we decided to make the State Fair a tradition. We start making preparations a few months in advance when we register our children in their desired categories. This year we’ve got items in the Lego, Fine Arts, Baked Goods, Jewelry and Creative Decorations categories. It requires a bit of extra work on my part to get everyone registered and to deliver all of their goods in time, but it really adds to the excitement when you know that you’ve invested a bit of yourself in the fair. Not to mention, we can now boast about our family’s three blue ribbons, two third place positions and a couple of honorable mentions.
Over the years, we’ve developed a few tactics to make the most of our yearly visit and to keep our budget in check.
- Pre-purchasing tickets. We reduce our costs (and avoid long lines) by buying admission and ride tickets ahead of time. If you purchase online and select the print-your-own option, you’ll save the most money. Also, since we’d prefer not to spend the entire day on the rides pre-buying tickets gives our kids a clear limit. Each child knows they have a certain amount of tickets to work with and once they’ve used up their allotment it’s time to enjoy the rest of the fair. If you missed the pre-buy period this year, going to the fair on Can-Can day is another way to reduce the cost of admission.
- Come Prepared. We tend to arrive early and stay until suppertime, but feeding a big crowd on fair food all day can get pricey so we carry in our own lunch and water bottles (which can be refilled at the water fountains). Then we spend our money on a few less usual treats like honey cotton candy and Deep Fried Jalapeno Pimento Cheese and Bacon Hushpuppies with Sriracha Bang Bang Dipping Sauce (I am soooo trying this). Being October the temperature often varies throughout the day; therefore, we instruct our crew to bring an extra sweater along. Oh, and comfortable shoes are a must.
- Plan Your Strategy. A bit of forward-thinking can insure that everyone leaves the fair satisfied. If you’ve got little ones, you’ll want to make it over to the PBS tent where they can pose for a photo with this year’s cartoon character or snag a coloring sheet. Got teens? They’ll probably want to spin until they’re dizzy on the Tilt-O-Whirl (plan that ride BEFORE lunch). Elementary-aged kids can be entertained and educated thorough the day by participating in the Fair Scavenger Hunt (you’ll need to print out a copy before you arrive). If you’ve brought your own sandwiches, you may want to be sure you’re near the picnic tables at lunchtime.
- Safety First. Our entourage generally includes little feet; hence, we always tote along a stroller or ride-on wagon. These also double as convenient carriers for all the free stickers, pencils, brochures, lollipops, bracelets and clickers the kids are sure to accumulate throughout the trip (they also substitute as a coat rack when the kids abandon their extra sweater layer). Crowds can get deep in areas so you’ll want to keep tiny people close. There is also a Red Cross station where lost children can safely wait for their parents. It’s a good idea to remind kids what to do in the unlikely event they lose sight of you. I write my name and cell phone number down on slips of paper and then have my youngest ones stuff the notes in their pockets (frightened kiddos tend to forget names and numbers).
- One year our friends followed our prompting and headed over to the fair. I learned later that they (regrettably) paid a sizable fee for parking. We park our land-barrage (15-passenger van) near Carter Finley stadium where the parking is free (and abundant) and the fairgrounds are just a short jaunt (okay relatively short by comparison to the whole day’s worth of walking you’ll be doing) across of the road.
- Soak It All In & Find Your Inspiration. Like I said, the best part of the fair (in my humble opinion) is discovering the myriad talent that abounds among the proud people of our state. Check out the themed gardens and find a novel way to decorate your own yard next spring. Bring your youngsters to an animal event and encourage them to consider joining their local 4-H Club. Find some inspiration for your scrap-booking or wood-working projects in the Hobby Crafts Building. And definitely scope out the categories you plan to compete in next year.
- Enjoy Some Adult Venues. If you appreciate a nip of wine or beer, you’ll want to include a stop over at the Hunt Horse Arena (across from the fair entrance by Carter Finley) for a sampling of NC’s finer beverages. Or catch a free show during the Homegrown North Carolina Concert Series which is held each evening.
I wholeheartedly agree with this year’s theme. Nothing Could Be Finer than carving out a day with family and friends and relishing in the sights, sounds and (some) smells of this beautiful state of ours. The NC State Fair is always on my fall bucket list. Be sure to include it on yours, too.
The NC State Fair runs from October 15th to the 25th.
This year the fair has both a science-themed and a general scavenger hunt available for download. Both can be found at http://www.ncstatefair.org under the scavenger hunt tab. The website also includes the dates and times for the Wine and Beer tastings, fireworks displays, concert schedule, daily grand stand show times, educational materials and much, much more.