A year at the fair

Madison Hansen, 11, performs her hula hoop routine in November at the Volusia County Fair in DeLand.

The two-century tradition of the county fair may be ripe for a comeback in Florida.

More than 4.4 million people visited a county fair or the state fair during the 2017-18 season.

It’s a dip of 266,000 visitors from the year before, according to the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

But, a closer look shows that 19 county fairs in the Sunshine State generated increased attendance and Marion County could generate a boost.

What was a quickly thrown together fundraiser for schools and other charities generated 20,000 guests for a fair-like environment — with only two months of planning — allowing it to become a springboard for Florida’s newest upcoming fair just north of The Villages in Belleview.

Florida’s 67 counties are home to 50 fairs and livestock shows during a season that runs mid-September to mid-April.

In a state known for mega-theme park attractions like Walt Disney World and Universal’s two-park complex, there’s still a place for midway rides, cotton candy and unique entertainment.

“We’re a carnival. We’re a celebration of the community, and we want to embrace that,” Wil Price, spokesman of the Central Florida Fair in Orlando, which is surrounded by those theme parks. “We’re not Disney. We don’t want to be Disney.”

It’s a cheaper option by far. Daily admission at the Central Florida Fair was $12 for adults, $7 for children. For comparison, one-day park tickets at Walt Disney World start at $102 and daily admission at Universal Studios or Universal’s Islands of Adventure starts at $115.

Low cost is joined by technology seeping into fair traditions.

The Miami-Dade County Fair & Exposition — which boasted about 100 rides, games and food vendors in its midway — offered paperless, digital wristbands called “Magic Money” that utilize radio-frequency identification chips to handle ticketing for rides and games for its more than 456,000 visitors during the fair’s 25-day run. About 50 stations on the fairgrounds allowed fair guests to load and reload money onto the wristbands.

Fair staff introduced the concept in 2017 — the first of its kind in the state — then expanded on it for this year’s fair for use with refreshment purchases.

“You have to adapt with the times,” Claudia Hernandez-Maltes, the Miami-Dade Fair’s director of marketing and entertainment, said of the wristbands.

Miami-Dade was tops in county fair attendance in 2016, then slipped to 582,000 in 2017 and netted only 456,450 last spring. Aside from the Florida Strawberry Festival in Plant City, it’s still the biggest attended festival in Florida. Even with sliding numbers, the entertainment industry trade publication Venues Today ranked the Miami-Dade Fair one of the 40 most popular fairs in North America and the best-attended in Florida.

However, 19 other fairs saw increased attendance. Central Florida Fair picked up 20,000 more guests compared to 2017. Martin County generated 10,000 more and Pensacola Interstate Fair jumped 9,000.

Gerri Gerthe will turn two 30-acre plots of open pasture along County Road 25 outside Belleview into the home of the Marion County Fair, slated to begin Oct. 26 — the county’s first open fair registered with the state since 1996. 

Gerthe, who heads a local nonprofit called Florida Kids Helping Kids, became encouraged when her organized “fair event” last year attracted 20,000 people over 10 days.

County fairs are near and dear to Gerthe’s heart because of how they raise awareness of agriculture and how farmers raise crops and livestock for food. And she’s concerned that land used for farming — and for county fairs as well — is disappearing because of development.

“If our farmland is going away, who’s going to stick up for the farmer who can’t keep their farm going before they sell it for development for land and houses?” she asked.

To document the outlook of county fairs, the Daily Sun crisscrossed the state visiting some of those fairgrounds in places like Naples, Orlando, Bushnell, Green Cove Springs, DeLand and Live Oak.

The Midway

At the Central Florida Fair in Orlando, riders screamed with joy on the Mighty Mouse coaster, with its brightly colored cars decorated with mouse ears. Other folks tried out the Sea Ray, a swing ride designed to resemble a pirate ship; and the Cliff Hanger, a coaster that simulates paragliding.

Hip-hop songs from Migos and Post Malone boomed from the Hit in 2000 ride, which spins riders at increasing speed under flashing multicolored lights.

Glowing in the neon shades of green, purple and yellow Mardi Gras beads, the Street Fighter chair swing ride loomed over the midway like a giant metal insect, tossing and spinning the hapless humans seated in its curved jaws.

“It was obviously very, very scary,” Luis Enrique Maldonado-Castillo, 18, said after escaping the jaws of the beast. “But it was fun. I loved when you go upside down.”

The excited screams of riders like Luis and his 9-year-old sister, Kristina, could be heard as far as far away as the parking lot of the fairgrounds.

“If people don’t get scared, we aren’t doing our job,” Price said.

Away from the rides, people tested their skills in game booths, trying to win the stuffed Pokemon, Minions and Simpsons characters that hung from the walls.

Outside one, “Balloon-O-Rama,” pieces of popped, deflated balloons from the game covered the ground.

A little girl held a stuffed owl she won that was larger and taller than she was.

Wade Shows, a Livonia, Michigan, company that provides midway entertainment at fairs and carnivals, crafts these rows of sensory overload for various fairs, including the upcoming Marion County Fair.

The Shows

The unassuming recreation vehicle that Jef and Jill Eaton travel in is just a temporary home before they emerge in black-collared shirts, black pants and vests with a multicolored ring pattern, and toting wands, a rainbow colored sheet and a stuffed snake.

Jef and Jill are the masters of ceremonies in the Kandu Magic Show, a children’s magic show that was presented in two shows one night at the Volusia County Fair. The act leans heavily on engaging with their pint-sized audience.

“The hook of our show is to let the kids do the magic,” Jef said.

Entertainment options vary from fair to fair. Talking robots, acrobatic dogs, comedy hypnotists and farming-themed puppet shows can show up on the show bill.

Some fairs book popular musicians for concerts. The Central Florida Fair featured Aaron Lewis, the lead singer of the rock band Staind. Rap group Sugarhill Gang and R&B singer Ginuwine co-headlined the first Saturday of this year’s Miami-Dade County Fair.

But it’s shows like the Eatons’ that aim to define the culture of each fair. And they acknowledge the uniqueness of what they have to offer is a selling point.

“Rarely do we see another act like ours, a children’s magic act,” Jef said. “You usually don’t have two kids’ shows at a fair.”

The Eatons, who live in Orlando when they’re not touring, appear at 10 to 12 county fairs every year. Their performances include two different magic shows and a game show.

Life on the road is challenging. Having to drive 16 hours in a single day to reach the next venue, overcoming vehicle repairs and flat tires, have them thinking 2018 might be their last year.

Shane and Alecia Hansen also live on the road as they co-star in Hansen’s Spectacular, a fast-paced exhibition of high-speed juggling, trampolines, cube spinning and soaring through the air on a swing 30 feet up. It’s a family affair.

The Spectacular builds upon Shane and Alecia’s upbringings in families of circus performers. Shane first performed in the circus as a toddler. Alecia’s parents did a flying trapeze act for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. The Sarasota couple have performed together for about 18 years.

The Hansens performed with their three daughters, Olivia, 14; Madison, 12; and Ella, 8 at this year’s Collier County Fair.

“We’re a normal family,” Alecia said. “Until people find out what we do for a living.”

The Roamers

While the Hansens have a practiced routine, other fair performers more or less improvise.

Deep in the expo hall at the Miami-Dade County Fair, where visitors examined displays of youth projects ranging from creative writing to fine arts and needlecraft, Michael and Karen Barnard roamed around looking for people to entertain.

Capturing attention wasn’t challenging for the husband and wife of 43 years because of their bright yellow wigs, white painted faces and red noses.

They’ve performed as clowns at the fair since 1997.

The Barnards enjoy their role as clowns so much, they see coming to the fair less like a job and more like coming to a family reunion.

“We think of it like seeing a cousin we haven’t seen in a long time,” said Karen, who performs under the clown name “Katie.” Her rainbow-colored clown suit erupts in a pattern of colored circles that resemble party balloons.

The couple doesn’t have a show. But Michael — whose clown name is “Tadpole” — has one reliable go-to act: carrying a leash for an “invisible” dog and pretending to chase the imaginary mutt.

It was how he got a group of young girls to smile when they excitedly approached the clowns at the fair, hoping for a picture with Tadpole and Katie.

“Your heart fills up with joy to see such love and compassion for people,” Michael said. “It makes it worth it. And when the little comes come in, we don’t call them grandchildren. We call them fair children.”

The Derby

It’s just before 1 p.m. on the outskirts of Naples, and the speedway is empty except for five crows perched along a railing by the bleachers. Sprinklers run incessantly, spraying water onto the dirt of the staging area for a demolition derby.

Before long, junky cars would be smashing into and mangling each other until only one vehicle remained running.

Participants had different reasons for joining in this loud, metal-crunching contest at the Collier County Fair.

Lou Greco and Melissa Vitale do it to bring attention to their family business, Propane Connection LLC. Their 1994 Grand Marquis is spray-painted in a cloudy red, white and blue pattern with the company name, “LOU” and the number 76 — the number on Greco’s high school football uniform — emblazoned on the side door.

“Being a small business, we wanted to support the fair,” Vitale said. “And (Lou) loves doing this. He did this (demolition derbies) before in Massachusetts.”

Billy Benoit does demolition derbies as a way to follow his passion for cars. He builds derby cars at his house with his brother, Cody, and a friend of his, Dylan Edwards.

He wore a purple shirt that read “Derby addicts” and bore a picture of a station wagon. On the back of it was a sentence, perhaps a mission statement of sorts: “I’d rather lose putting on a show than sandbag to win.”

Benoit’s wife, Amy, shows up to all the derbies he participates in. But she admitted she was nervous because “he’s a crazy driver.”

“He wants to win,” she said.

Savannah Griffin participated in the Collier fair’s first demolition derby in 2006, the same year she got her driver’s license at 16.

Her reason? “It’s fun.”

The 2001 Kia she and her boyfriend, Cecil Burke, drove had a smiley face on the hood, the infinity symbol on both sides and the couple’s favorite numbers: 1017 for Savannah and 911 for Cecil.

Collier County appears to be one of Florida’s hotspots for demolition derbies. Posters on an Internet message board for derby drivers and promoters frequently mention Collier.

TJ Snopkowski, the fair’s marketing and sponsorships director, resolved any suspicion by confirming that demolition derbies detached from the county fair are popular in the community. One “Crash & Bash” event following Hurricane Irma attracted several thousand spectators, he said.

As the event cranked up, derby drivers barreled around the track in ramshackle sedans and station wagons in which protective screens replaced windshields and windows. Dirt, mud and sand splattered everywhere as drivers tried to puncture radiators, damage wheel axles or anything else that would stop their competitors. The noise drowned out screams of children from the midway rides.

Victories went to Burke and Griffin’s Kia, as well as a pickup truck driven by Rodney Batcher — a friend of Burke’s — bearing the number 7 and the name of Batcher’s Naples auto body shop, All Out Automotive.

“It’s dangerous, but not as dangerous as some people think it is,” Batcher said. “It’s like big kid bumper cars.”

The showdown between the last two vehicles lasted unusually long for a demolition derby — it took about 20 minutes for Burke’s sedan to bash Batcher’s pickup hard enough to disable the engine.

“Tell me them ol’ cars ain’t tough,” Griffin said.

The Food

Walk into a fair and it can be hard sometimes to escape the overpowering aromas of oil and batter frying.

Trailers selling fair food offer nearly anything that could be deep-fried. Oreos, Twinkies, Snickers bars, pizza, cheesecake and even Kool-Aid can be plunged into hot fat.

Guilty pleasures win out.

“I try to eat healthy,” said Julio Hernandez, a marketing assistant for the Miami-Dade County Fair. “But when the fair is on, you gotta cheat a little bit.”

Some other flavors persist, however.

At Florida’s oldest continuously operating county fair, the 103-year-old Suwannee County Fair, the main draw is its corn boil.

During every day of the fair, people line up for boiled sweet corn sold by the ear for $1 each. All the money supports the fair board, which makes it possible for the fair’s activities to take place.

Sweets are another dominant feature of fair food.

In Lake County, home of another of Florida’s oldest county fairs, Della Ryan, 86, served vanilla, chocolate and twist swirled soft-serve ice cream from a small trailer at the fairgrounds in Eustis.

Ryan said she learned the business of selling ice cream at the county fair from her parents.

“My parents had a maple sugar farm and we used to go to the Iowa State Fair,” she said. “We served pure maple ice cream for 10 cents.”

Many of Ryan’s favorite memories of county fairs conjure up images of fair food.

She said there’s a magic in the air when she sees the blue and pink strands of cotton candy on children’s hair or pieces of candy apple smeared on their faces.

“I love the children and the happiness on their faces from coming to a fair,” Ryan said.

The Pageants

Beauty pageants may have slipped as attractions on television, but they remain a mainstay of county fairs.

Yes, the contestants wear dresses and the winner is crowned with a tiara. But here it’s more about helping young women build confidence and develop public speaking skills they can use to become leaders.

At the Miss Clay County Fair Pageant, it’s leadership through becoming the face of the county fair.

Clay’s pageant is entirely volunteer-run. Pageant organizer Diana Rothwell, who’s worked on the event for four years now, said she presented the concept to the fair association at a time where Clay was one of the few counties in Florida without a pageant attached to its county fair.

The competition has four divisions open to ages 9 to 22. The top two winners get scholarships: $1,000 for Miss Clay County Fair and $500 for Teen Miss Clay County Fair.

This year’s pageant took place in March at the Woman’s Club of Keystone Heights, about 35 minutes away from the fairgrounds in Green Cove Springs.

“This is their first pageant and it’s a little frightening,” Rothwell said of the competitors. “The interview seems to be the most frightening (part for contestants), apart from the on-stage questioning.”

Around mid-morning, as contestants begin filing through the pink walled lobby to register, Rothwell and the pageant’s judges discussed the pageant’s opening number and what types of questions to ask during the interview.

They considered asking smaller children about their favorite rides and favorite animals at the fair.

Interviews with the judges are an important part of the pageant because it shows how ready the contestants are to represent the fair. Forty percent of the contestants’ performance is judged based on how well they did in the interview, Rothwell said.

“It’s like preparing to interview for a job,” she said. “It’s not just about wearing a tiara and makeup and a gown. It’s about, ‘Who are you and why would you want to be Miss Clay County Fair?’”

Katie Blocker Timmons knows the routine. She was Miss Clay County Fair in 2015.

“It’s good to have on my resume,” she said.  “When you’re exposed to it at a young age, you have no problem talking about yourself and what you want to do.”

Blocker Timmons returned this year to assist with setting up for the 2018 fair. She also showed dairy goats, pigs and cows during the livestock expo. One year, she performed as the opening act for country music star Sam Hunt.

At the felllowship hall of the First Baptist Church of Keystone Heights, which handled event-related preparations that couldn’t fit in the Woman’s Club, contestants worked on their hair and makeup.

Stylist Kirby Keller applied hair spray to Hailey Adams, who explained that pageant judges consider it unprofessional to have hair that sticks up. The smell of hair spray was everywhere.

Hailey, highly energetic from drinking Dr. Pepper, said she grew up on the pageant experience. She said she was used to having hair spray and bobby pins in her hair since she was 6 years old.

For some girls, a pageant is what it takes to build up confidence to be more involved in the community.

Hailey Adams’ sister, Hannah Adams, 14, attended the pageant wearing a Relay For Life jacket in support of the fundraising event for the American Cancer Society, said her career goal is to become a pediatric oncologist so she could help children who have cancer.

It’s a personal mission for her. She survived stage 3 kidney cancer, diagnosed when she was 5.

“She didn’t choose her cause,” said Lori Adams, mother of both girls. “Her cause chose her.”

As it worked out, the pageant judges chose her, too. Hannah went on to be declared Teen Miss Clay County Fair, while her little sister was crowned Pre-Teen Miss Clay County Fair.

Gerthe’s Dream

As Gerri Gerthe’s dream for the Marion County Fair starts to take shape on 60 acres across the street from the Belleview Elks Club on County Road 25, she’s found that leading a fair can come with major challenges.

The state requires at least 100 acres of land to sustain a fair, and finding open land in Marion County that doesn’t touch neighborhoods will be difficult.

Gerthe also said she’s looking for volunteers to assist, as well as corporate sponsors that can help with the costs of major expenses, such as security and repairing a stage for entertainers. Her Florida Kids Helping Kids is the only youth group that sponsors a fair in Florida.

“For a small nonprofit, this is a lot of money for us to come up with, and we’re a group working without even a building right now,” said Gerthe, who added she also uses her own money to support her causes when the need arises.

For Gerthe, who grew up enjoying carnival rides and cotton candy at county fairs, it’s the opportunity to help other people, young and old, make new memories.

Her favorite memory involving a carnival was when a couple in their 80s came just for one ride — the carousel — so they could recreate their first date.

“When I leave this world,” Gerthe said, “I want my legacy to be that I helped somebody.”

Michael Salerno is a senior writer with The Villages Daily Sun. He can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5369, or michael.salerno@thevillagesmedia.com.