TAMPA -- Midway madness returns starting Thursday when the Florida State Fair fires up its deep fryers and midway rides and readies farm animals for 12 days of nostalgia-scented exhibition.
Thanks to Florida's balmy weather, this is the first state fair of the year in the nation. So Tampa's showcase gets first crack at blowing our minds with what can come out of a deep fryer, and this year the funnel cake will never be the same.
There will once again be higher security on Friday for the day Hillsborough students get a free ticket and a day off school. That's on par with what deputies have done since the 2014 death of Andrew Joseph III, who was hit by a car and died after being kicked out of the fair. This week marks the third anniversary of his death, and his family is continuing to call attention to fair safety and will have a showing Saturday of the documentary The Untold Story, at 5 p.m. at Tampa Underground, 1925 E Second Ave., Tampa.
Hillsborough sheriff's spokesman Larry McKinnon said the joint efforts of the community, school and deputies have been successful in making the fair a safer place.
"You can't measure what you've prevented, so no news is good news sometimes," McKinnon said. "I think the fact that we have not had any major incidents in the last few years is a testament to the fact that it's working."
Meanwhile, the fair brings the usual mix of exhibits, animals, lawn mower races and rodeos. On the midway, fair organizers say they are setting up the largest portable Ferris wheel in North America. The Midway Sky Eye is equipped with 36 gondolas and towers 155 feet above the midway.
Also new this year is an interactive exhibit for kids called Sweet: the Tasty Journey, a hands-on history of candy in pop culture with a giant Candy Land game perfect for selfies.
Entertainment is free, except for the Country Gold tour ($10-$20 Feb. 14 and Feb. 15), and the lineup includes the Circus Hollywood stunt show, a giraffe menagerie, performing sea lions, the Budweiser Clydesdales (Thursday through Saturday) and daily racing pigs.
But back to the food.
The funnel cake — batter poured through a funnel into hot grease before the fried dough is topped with powdered sugar — has been getting the crazy fair-food treatment in recent years, and this year is no different. A recent vote of fair fans gave the people's choice award to the Cheesy Fried Enchilada Funnel Cake from the always outrageous McGrath family at Best Around concessions. The cornmeal funnel cake batter mixed with enchilada spice is topped with queso and ground chorizo.
Also keep an eye out for the Nutella Oreo Funnel Cake, White Cheddar and Bacon Pretzel Dog, the Pizza Cone, Kettle Corn Ice Cream, Shrimp and Grits Sundae and Donut Grilled Cheese.
Also new this year is the Alaskan Soda Jerk, a special soft drink concession stand serving up root beer floats, cherry lime-aids, shakes and malts. It's all set against a nostalgic backdrop of '50s music, with a diner-style booth and costumed servers in aprons, paper hats and bow ties. "Soda Jerks" will entertain customers with their presentations.
You can save a few dollars if you buy your tickets before Thursday's opening. Once the fair opens, admission is $11, $6 for kids, $13 Fridays through Sundays, $7 for kids. Florida State Fairgrounds, 4802 U.S. 301 N, Tampa. (813) 627-7821. floridastatefair.com.
Contact Sharon Kennedy Wynne at [email protected] Follow @SharonKWn.