TAMPA — The crowd gasped when the man put his hand in the alligator's mouth.
"Dave, you're an animal!" audience member Shawn Clark, 28, yelled when performer David Castillo pinned the 8-foot alligator then heaved it in the air. "That gator about ate his face off."
Around the corner from the gator wrestling match, the scent of dough bathing in grease hung in the air as midway lights flashed and ride operators tried to entice fair-goers to test out the newest attraction.
The Florida State Fair opened Thursday with more than 6,000 animals, 100 rides and rows and rows of deep-fried food, including this year's darling, the Ramen Noodle Burger.
For the 110th year, people from across Tampa Bay and the state flocked to the fairgrounds to experience all the State Fair's scents, sights and flavors.
Gov. Rick Scott flipped the switch at about 6:30 a.m. Thursday, bringing the midway to life with flickering, buzzing lights.
Following a cabinet meeting which honored service members, volunteers, teachers and students, the governor made his way past stands touting fresh lemonade, turkey legs, corn dogs and funnel cakes. Every few seconds, someone stopped him to take photos or shake his hand.
"Aren't you in the news all the time?" 8-year-old Giovanni Everest of Walden Lake Elementary School asked Scott.
"I was on the news before you got up this morning," Scott replied.
As the governor gripped and grinned, Janelle Balceiro, 16, prepared to show her 2-year-old miniature zebu (a type of cattle) in the Charlie Lykes Arena across the sprawling fairgrounds.
Blaze, a 573-pound bull, kicked the ground and bucked his head stubbornly as Janelle lead him around the ring.
Please don't get loose, Janelle thought as Blaze strained to pull away.
A judge walked around, evaluating the animals on their posture, body structure and how they look.
As Janelle struggled to keep Blaze calm, the judges announced the rankings of the eight participants. The teen smiled briefly, sweat dripping down her forward, as she and Blaze claimed third place.
Janelle, who attends Felix Varela Senior High School in Miami, decided to show cattle for the first time this year because she thought it would be a challenge.
"They're so big and stubborn," she said. "I didn't think anyone could manage them."
By late afternoon, the much-acclaimed Comet II — the largest portable roller coaster in the United States — still hadn't opened to riders.
Kids tugged at their parents' arms and pointed as two maintenance workers climbed the 52-foot-tall coaster and tinkered with one of the carts.
Richard Horton, 45, of Orlando watched as workers tested the ride repeatedly.
"They use this ride a lot at the fairs in the Midwest," said Horton, who builds models of rides out of recycled materials such as bottle caps and paper clips. "I was going to ride it, but I guess we'll see."
Caitlin Johnston can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 661-2443.