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1997 FLORIDA STATE FAIR // State Fair opens today

Performers perfected high dives from 85 feet, and concessionaires searched for their designated selling spots Wednesday in preparation for today's opening of the 93rd annual Florida State Fair.

The gates open at 9 a.m., followed by the first of daily parades led by furry mascot Fair Bear. The 12-day fair runs through Feb. 17.

Among the 85 rides this year, fair officials expect the Skyscraper to be a hit with fairgoers. The ride, which is coming to Tampa from California, will be available on the East Coast for the first time. Two riders are strapped onto each end of a 160-foot-tall propeller that rotates at speeds up to 70 mph, enabling riders to experience free fall.

"It's really scary," said Sonya Trezevant, public relations manager for the fair. "We expect this to be very popular with the teenage crowd."

Again this year, much of the entertainment consists of country acts and oldies groups. In the past, fair organizers say, they lost money on big popular acts such as Boyz II Men and REO Speedwagon. This year's performers include country newcomers LeAnn Rimes, 14, and Bryan White on Sunday, the Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra on Monday and the Drifters, Coasters and Platters on Feb. 13. Tonight features country stars Travis Tritt and Marty Stuart at 7.

"It's the kind of entertainment people like to see at the fair," said Rick Vymlatil, executive director of the Florida State Fair Authority. "Once we get them in, if we can keep them entertained, people will be happy. This year, we've tried to do different things to hit different audiences."

On Feb. 15, the fairgrounds will host the Florida State Cheerleading Championships. New York Yankees Day is scheduled for Feb. 16 with many of the world champion players and coaches.

The horse show complex holds events every day such as horses pulling sleds with weights and a blacksmith competition. The Children's Entertainment Theater has such events as a puppy show and a ventriloquist.

The livestock exhibit has 5,000 entries this year, including llamas, pigs, rabbits and cows. Special features of the exhibit include a session on learning to milk a cow and, if you're lucky, you can see the birth of animals in the "Mooternity Ward."

Trezevant said the fair is including a circus this year after organizers heard that visitors missed the elephants and clowns last year. Under a new tent that seats 2,000, the Sarasota-based Royal Hanneford Circus will perform each day.

"A lot of people think the fair is all just food and rides, but it's so much more than that," Trezevant said.

Most events and attractions are included in the $7 adult admission price, and parking is free.

"Even if you never rode a midway ride or ate any food, at $7 a ticket, you would get your money's worth," Vymlatil said.

Last year, the fair was scaled down to 12 days from 17. Trezevant said more people attended the shorter fair.

"It was too long and not bringing in more people than came to a 12-day fair," she said. "Twelve days seems to be perfect."

The fair has undergone many other changes in recent years.

The fair authority was reorganized in 1995, its size decreased from 28 to 21 members, appointment powers transferred from the governor to the Florida Department of Agriculture. George Steinbrenner, owner of the New York Yankees, was installed as chairman.

Last March, the fair authority paid $500,000 to settle a discrimination lawsuit filed by a former fair administrator who claimed she had been the victim of age and sex discrimination.

The authority came out of a nearly $3-million debt in August, said Vymlatil, who joined the fair in May. He is optimistic about the future.

"We've wiped the slate clean and we're starting new, like a baby," he said. "When we paid off all the debts, from my standpoint, it was like a new lease on life. Now we have to come in and keep it on track."

The Florida State Fairgrounds are off Interstate 4, exits 4, 5 and 6A. Travelers also can get to the fair from U.S. 301 and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. Gates open at 9 a.m. each day. For information, call 627-FAIR.