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Florida State Fair caps roller-coaster, rainy 110th run Monday

TAMPA

The sky was clear and the midway packed Sunday on the second-to-last day of the Florida State Fair, as crowds flocked to the Ferris wheel and funnel cake stands like they do every year.

Charlene Moye, 35, carried a clear plastic bag full of plush toys she had collected over five hours of playing games. In more than 30 years of attending the fair, not much has changed, she said.

"It's about the same."

Some things are a given when the fair rolls into town each year, from creative fried food offerings to people handing over dollars to compete for prizes. But the 110th edition of the State Fair saw some changes — and challenges — this year.

The fair experienced some hitches with new digital tickets, and a free student day on the first Friday saw teenagers rampaging through the midway at unprecedented levels, forcing an early closure. One student removed from the fair was killed crossing nearby Interstate 4.

Still, it was the old challenge of dismal weather on several key days that likely will be to blame for poorer-than-projected attendance figures, said Charles Pesano, executive director of the Florida State Fair Authority.

"Attendance every year is so dependent on weather," he said.

Pesano said he thinks this year's attendance will be close to 400,000 if today goes smoothly. In 2013, the fair's total figure over 12 days was about 443,000.

Drizzly weather beset the first Friday and Saturday of the fair. And on Wednesday, fairgoers were advised to seek shelter as storms brought heavy wind and rain to eastern Hillsborough.

That first Friday, deputies struggled to contain hundreds of teenagers they say were running, fighting and stealing during the nighttime hours of Hillsborough's student day, when schoolchildren are given a free ticket and the day off from classes.

Andrew Joseph III, a 14-year-old Riverview boy who was among the 99 ejected that night, was struck and killed while crossing Interstate 4.

Deputies have said he was removed for disorderly conduct. It's not clear why he attempted to cross the interstate almost three hours later.

Today is student day for Pinellas, Polk, Manatee and Sarasota counties, whose day at the fair has not previously seen such unrest as on the Hillsborough student day. But those with a free student ticket must now be accompanied by an adult after 7 p.m. Pesano said the rule first went into effect Sunday, the student day for Citrus, Highlands and Marion counties.

After the fair closes and this year is evaluated, Pesano said the fair authority will consult with the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office and the Hillsborough School Board to see if any other changes should be considered.

Ball game vendor Scotty Conley said this year has been slower than the other two years he's worked at the fair. He said he thinks it was a combination of concern about the first Friday's incident and poor weather — the storms on Wednesday halted a busy day.

"Wednesday was looking to be the strongest so far," Conley said.

This also was the first year that the fair used digital prepaid cards for rides rather than paper tickets. There was some trouble with Wi-Fi in using the system, Pesano said, but a few glitches were expected the first year.

"All the preparation you do is good, but it never gets you to the real environment," he said.

The system is working well now, Pesano said, and the switch to digital allowed for more days with the popular option of armbands, where fairgoers pay for unlimited rides that day.

"The last few days, it's been working very nicely," Pesano said.

Sunday afternoon, Randy Rodriguez, 34, stood holding a giant stuffed kitty in one hand and a pink plastic dolphin in the other.

Having gone to the fair almost every year while growing up in Tampa, he said, he's now able to bring his own little girl.

He said he was glad to not be at the fair on the first Friday, but that he wasn't worried about heading there Sunday.

Instead, he was going to indulge in the traditions best known with the fair.

"We've eaten all the junk food you can probably eat," Rodriguez said.

Florida State Fair caps roller-coaster, rainy 110th run Monday 02/16/14 [Last modified: Sunday, February 16, 2014 10:48pm]
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