TAMPA — About an hour before the Florida State Fair opened Thursday, prosecutors and sheriff's deputies fanned out across the midway to race each other in the water gun shootout, pop balloons with darts and fish rubber ducks from blowup ponds.
But don't be fooled. This was all business.
"We've got our measuring sticks to make sure the foot-long corn dogs are actually a foot long," said a straight-faced Mark Ober, the Hillsborough County state attorney.
As mandated by state statutes, members of Ober's office and the Hillsborough sheriff's special investigations unit spent the rainy Thursday morning looking for flaws or false advertising in the midway games.
Like the fried dough and country concerts, the inspection is a vital part of the annual festival, designed to make sure all visitors have a fair shot at all the colorful, plushy prizes.
"It's part of Americana. It's mom and apple pie and baseball and the Florida State Fair. We want to make sure everybody has a good time," Ober said. "People are spending their good money out here."
Ducking under the awning to the balloon-pop game, Ober, State Attorney's Office spokesman Mark Cox and Assistant State Attorney Mike Sinacore grabbed a pile of darts and consulted their 13-page packet of regulations.
"All darts used in dart games must be weighted, balanced and have no frayed, broken or missing fletching," Ober read. "Blunt darts shall not be used."
After determining the meaning of "fletching" (the quill-like part at the dart's end), the prosecutors hurled the darts toward the balloon-filled board.
"This one looks pretty good," Ober said.
In years past, the inspectors have discovered ineffective watermelon-shaped basketball hoops and plastic ducks whose too-big beaks obstructed the rings intended to be hurled around their necks.
This year, though, it seemed everything was in order.
But before they left, Ober said they would make one last check.
"I'm serious about that corn dog," he said.
The fair ends Feb. 21.
Kim Wilmath can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 661-2442.