Like the new "Sweetheart" doughnut from the Amish Baking Company, the Florida State Fair is stuffed with new attractions and fresh twists on old favorites.
The Florida State Fair, opening Thursday and running through Feb. 15, is the first state fair in the country each year. Tampa's balmy conditions make it an ideal place to test out new attractions before they make their way around other states.
"We try to create a new element of the fair every year," Pesano said. "We try to find rides that haven't been here to create that 'wow' factor."
In addition to new exhibits and rides, Pesano said the Fair Authority often makes changes to fan-favorites to keep things fresh. Fair fans, prepare your eyes (and stomachs) for these 2016 newcomers. And don't forget about the old favorites.
Go nuts for doughnuts
Now, about that doughnut.
The Amish Baking Company, curators of big-as-your-face hot and sticky doughnuts, brings a soon-to-be fan favorite this year in the form of the "Sweetheart." The traditional giant Amish donut is topped with fresh strawberries, hot fudge and cool whipped cream.
"The Sweetheart is probably one of the best things we've made," owner, Nate Peachy, said. "It's like a big dessert, and best eaten with a fork and a knife."
The Amish Baking Company rarely makes changes or adds new products to its line of frisbee-sized fried dough and hand-crafted soft pretzels. But this year, owners want to take advantage of the fair coinciding with Valentine's Day and peak strawberry season to create the "Sweetheart" with fresh Plant City strawberries.
Check out two Amish Baking Company stands this year selling regular doughnuts ($4), strawberry-stuffed doughnuts ($8) and the "Sweetheart" special ($9).
If you make your way into the Florida Center, you'll find a new addition seated among the arts and crafts and school competition entries. The Salute to Black History exhibit has 12 booths created by Hillsborough County elementary and middle schools, designed to recognize notable local and national faces.
"We wanted to provide something educational and sustainable for students as well as visitors of the fair," said Lewis Brinson, the project's coordinator and assistant superintendent of student services for Hillsborough County Schools. "Something like this can connect the community more to the fair."
The booths and staging area will have educational materials, presentations from students and faculty, live entertainment and historical reenactments. At least one booth will pay tribute to black leaders in the Tampa Bay area.
Also in the Florida Center is the new White House exhibit, featuring a replica of the Oval Office and White House press briefing room, as well as a rendering of the White House Lawn, the Capitol and a selection of former first lady's dresses.
Chuck Pesano, Executive Director of the Florida State Fair Authority called it an "amazing lesson from the last 50 years of our presidential history" and fitting for an election year.
Head over to the Ag Hall of Fame and be surrounded by thousands of butterflies in the new Butterfly Encounter. Pesano likened the experience to being inside a large net filled with hundreds of different species of butterflies and moths.
This year at the Tampa Bay Times stage, the Rolf family — Matt, Lisa, Collin, Adrienne and Benjamin — perform popular music and classics three times a day as Matt's Family Jam.
Those with a need for speed can check out the new and improved rides on the midway. The popular giant slide that was a staple for 30-some years was damaged by a tornado last year, but organizers brought a portable giant slide for this year's fair. It's one of the largest portable giant slides in North America.
Also debuting on the midway is the DiskO rollercoaster, the Super Cyclone, the Comet 2 rollercoaster and the Stampede, a modern take on the classic giant wheel.
Oldies, but goodies
Some fair staples will never change or go away — for example, the Dennis Lee Show, the Batcopter exhibit and the showcase of thousands of animals in the livestock area.
Iconic fair foods and rides are cemented in the fair experience. The Florida State Fair — or any fair for that matter — wouldn't be the same without funnel cakes, fried Oreos, sausage sandwiches and the Giant Wheel.
"We've got four Giant Wheels on the fairgrounds this year," Pesano said. "You get an amazing view of all the lights and the grounds from it."
Specific to Florida's state fair is the iconic Cracker Country, full of odes to old Florida, including tastes of ultra-sweet fresh sugar cane and walkthroughs of an old schoolhouse and general store.
"It's a staple of the fair," Pesano said. "If we didn't have that we might as well close the fair."