TAMPA — The Tilt-A-Whirl is at a standstill and the fried Twinkies booth is shuttered.
But not for long.
"All this right here is going to be a sea of people," says Scott Merselis, a spokesman for the Florida State Fair, sweeping his arms across the partially assembled midway one recent morning. "I hope."
With just a few days left until the opening of the annual Tampa-based state fair— with its neon lights, livestock pageantry, twangy music and fried goodness — hundreds of staffers are working around the clock to erect rides, stock expo halls, test games and rehearse performances.
Many employees sleep on the premises or at nearby hotels. Some hardly sleep at all.
"We like to say we're building a small city in just a couple weeks," Merselis said after just a few hours of shut-eye. "But this is it. This is what we work for."
The gates open Thursday under what officials pray will be clear, beautiful skies.
Last year, unseasonably cold temperatures and a violent, tent-toppling storm dropped admission by more than 100,000 people, compared to the year before. Total revenue for the 2010 fair was down to just over $9 million — more than $2 million less than in 2009, according to fair financial statements.
For a self-supporting operation that doesn't receive any state or local funding, that hurt.
"It's like farming," recently elected Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam said of the weather. "It puts us all at a lot of risk."
Putnam, whose new role includes overseeing the Fair Authority Board, said he's not making major changes. But he said he would like to bring in more big-time entertainment acts.
In addition to the usual smaller shows — the Elvis impersonator contest, cheer and dance competitions, hog racing, the Country Gold show and the like — this year's fair will also feature a concert at the 1-800-Ask-Gary-Amphitheatre. "It's such a quality venue that it'd be a shame not to pair up a headline concert there," Putnam said.
Dubbed "Corndogs and Country," the amphitheater show features Craig Morgan, Joe Nichols, Sunny Sweeney, Colt Ford and Brett Eldredge. Twenty-dollar tickets include fair admission.
Also new this year: a helicopter trapeze show from stunt pilot Eugene A. Nock (also the proprietor of the original Batcopter that's coming back to the fair); a Vegas-style tribute show to Elvis, Cher, Patti LaBelle and Aretha Franklin; a two-day mixed martial arts show; and a bigger roller coaster than ever before.
There's also a new "dollar-ride power hour" between 10 a.m. and 11 a.m. on Saturdays, with nearly all the midway rides reduced to a $1 ticket each.
And who can forget the food?
Expect the typical artery-hardening fare, including doughnut burgers and deep-fried butter, with a few new delicacies: grilled meatloaf sundaes, deep-fried ice-cream cheeseburgers, red velvet funnel cake and fried shrimp po-boys the size of your head.
Believe it or not, there will also be a new vegetarian and vegan-friendly food tent from the Loving Hut restaurant chain. That's good news for people like spokesman Merselis, who doesn't eat any animal products. Still, "you've got to try the pickle-barrel sirloin tips," Merselis said. "Those were my favorites."
Kim Wilmath can be reached at (813) 661-2442 or firstname.lastname@example.org.