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A Day at the Fair


So much to see and do: the sand sculpture; a just-hatched chick; and the ever-popular massaging Footsie Wootsie.

A month after we moved to Central New York with our newborn daughter and 18-month-old son in 2001, my husband’s favorite band was scheduled to play at the New York State Fair. (You probably haven’t heard of them; they’re called Brother. From Australia, the band of two brothers and two more guys wear kilts, work boots and T-shirts, and play rock infused with bagpipes. It’s an interesting sound and show.)

Our daughter would be 10 weeks old for the show, which was slated for one of the small stages across from the bungee jump “ride” that year. My biggest concern for her was the noise and the dirt and dust kicked up by thousands of fairgoers. My son was another story: What if he gets lost?

Years earlier, as a newspaper reporter in Delaware, I’d covered that state’s fair during set up, sheep contests and breakdown for several years. (The singers Milli Vanilli were exposed as lip synchers a few days before their show at the Delaware State Fair.) The fair was easy to traverse. How much bigger could New York’s be?

I learned immediately upon arrival, when directed to park on the other side of the highway from the fair, that state fairs apparently represent the relative size of their states. Remember Delaware is only bigger than Rhode Island. We continued to the 375-acre New York State Fair and enjoyed a good night.

The toughest part came at the end of the evening when we had to board a bus to get across the highway to our car. With each of us carrying one child, we couldn’t easily fold up the double stroller and carry it up the bus’ steps. Fortunately, some kind man, a father no doubt, stepped off the bus, folded up the stroller and carried it up the steps for us into the crowded bus. Someone gave the baby and me a seat, but my husband and toddler son stood.

It was our fault for not figuring out how to get on a bus! But we hadn’t thought about that. When we returned to the fair years later with two small children, we tried to be better prepared. Here are some items to think about before embarking on a trip to the fair, now one of the highlights of the year for my children.

Fair preparation falls into four categories for me: sun, fun, food and rest. First of all, I would love to go to the fair on an overcast day when thunderstorms do not threaten. But how hard is that to achieve? Instead fair days typically boast bright sun that helps to wear out excited kids. Don’t forget the sunscreen. Whether applied at home before you go or when arriving at the fair, sunscreen is crucial to avoiding sunburn while enjoying the fair.

After my first encounter at the fair, my new neighbor advised us to go early in the day on a weekday to avoid big crowds and enjoy the rides. Makes sense. Plus, with good timing, we could head home before major meltdowns (the children’s and mine) and in time for afternoon naps (the children’s and hopefully mine). That fits the fun bill for me. There’s not much kids hate more than waiting in lines.

Michele Hunt of Memphis follows the advice her mother used when taking children to the fair: “Save the rides and the games for last! If you do them first, you will do nothing else.”

In fact, Hunt says she thinks her boys like the hatching chicks in the 4-H Youth Building the best. They even get to hold them in their hands.
Ethan, age 7, says, “My brother (age 5) likes the rides and I like the games.” I guess they’re growing up. Ethan started going to the fair at 6 months, his mom recalls. “We have gone every year with them” and her parents, she says. “It’s a family thing for us.” Every year the family has gotten to stay a bit longer as the boys have gotten older.

Fred Pierce, a father of three ranging in age from 12 to 25, offers this tip for fun: “What’s always worked for us is make sure each of your kids gets to pick several things that they want to do…and do those things first.” Then everyone can go home happy. He should know; he’s the new director of public relations for the fair.

He points out that two midways offer rides for different ages (young and older). “That way (parents with young children) are not surrounded by the rock music on the bigger rides, and the older kids.”

Then there are the animals. In addition to the traditional farm animals, this year offers monkeys, a trained bear show and pig racing, he says. The seals, sharks and Clydesdale horses also will be back.

“With kids there’s so much to do without spending a lot,” Pierce says. Check out the free circus Big Top tent that has moved to the track by the Grandstand this year. Food is a big part of the fair, of course. But fairgoers are welcome to bring coolers, snacks and baby bottles with them, Pierce says. “Especially this year when everybody’s trying to save money.” Spot checks of coolers are done at the gates, he notes, but they’re looking for alcohol, which may not be carried in, not baby formula.

Picnic tables with lots of shade are stationed in the Chevrolet Court by the replica of the fair, he says. Small rest areas that provide tables and cover from the sun are nestled along restaurant row.

In addition to taking breaks sitting down in the shade, Pierce recommends pulling little children in a wagon. The size of the fair “does present a challenge when you have little legs to walk on.”

One friend says she nursed her baby two years ago in the New Times Theater, in the Art and Home Center, during a silent movie accompanied by organ music. Another relatively peaceful area that’s good for a break is a small, enclosed garden attached to the Horticulture Building. I thought the Iroquois Village offered some welcome time away from the rides, plus shade and a chance to slow down.

If it’s all too much and you have to go home sooner than you expected, remember, you can always go back another day.

But my son MacIntyre, 8, recommends kids think long and hard about the rides they choose to do and those they skip. “The ferris wheel may look pretty fun from the bottom. But if you have little kids, they may get scared when they get to the top. … Roller coasters, too. They could be pretty scary for little people.” But if they have any inclination to try a ride, he suggests they go for it. “Otherwise they have to wait a whole year.”

One 5-year-old boy will get his first visit to the fair this year. Sara Pickett of Lysander has put off taking her son to the fair. “Just too many people. But I think he’s at a good age now to go on the rides and he’s a little more independent,” she explains.

Children age 12 and younger always get in for free at the State Fair. Discounted tickets are available at Wegmans and Price Chopper grocery stores, among other locations, until the fair opens on Aug. 21. Six of the fair’s 12 days will offer all-day ride tickets for $25 and $20 tickets with sponsored coupons, perfect for teenagers. Check the dates at www.nysfair.org or look in the free fair guide that’s issued in July.

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