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Beyond the rides, county fair is high on fun factor

When I was little, my sister and I got stuck at the top of a Ferris wheel. We were at a kiddie park and probably only 10 feet off the ground, but it was horrifying nonetheless.

Given this childhood trauma, rides at this year's Pinellas County Fair _ such as the Wind Shear, which whips riders upside down _ hold little appeal. I found, though, that it's possible to have a great time with feet firmly on the ground. And without spending much money: $33.50 in total.

First stop was the chair in front of caricature artist Rich Brown.

"All right, let's see you smile real big," he instructed. Brown, along with Michael Johnson and Dan Smith, create personalized cartoons in black and white or color for between $5 and $10.

"It's a way of getting back at society," Johnson said.

After a few minutes, Brown revealed his creation, which was kind except for the bubble gum pink lipstick he drew me wearing. Cost: $5.

Next, I made a candle with Karen Miani's help. She has 17 bins of wax crystals to choose from. After layering in the different color she stuck a wick in the middle and whipped out a propane blow torch to melt the top.

"It's fun for the kids," she said. The candle took just a couple of minutes to make and cost $4.

John and Fran Clark's trailer caught my eye next. They are from Beaufort, N.C., and run Antique Photo, where they will dress you in vintage garb and snap a sepia-toned picture.

Luckily, cross-dressing is allowed. I said I wanted to be a soldier.

"Confederate or Union?" Mrs. Clark asked. Like them, I am from North Carolina, so she slapped a gray waistcoat and hat on me and situated me beside the Southern Cross.

As Mr. Clark prepared his circa 1930 Eastman camera, Mrs. Clark strapped on a holster and laid a sword at my hand. I assumed the somber expression of a man about to surrender at Appomattox and Mr. Clark snapped the photo with a pop of bright lights.

The picture was ready in a few minutes and cost $12. The Clarks charge $14 for pictures with two people, $17 for a trio and $24 for a quartet.

The "cowboy and floozy" combination is the most popular pose, Mrs. Clark said.

Myron Munchak of Temporary Tattoos could not say which design was most popular. To give you ideas, inside the trailer were posters of men and women wearing little besides tattoos.

I chose Bucco Bruce because his days apparently are numbered. The Bucs' soon-to-be-extinct mascot will wink from my right arm for at least a week, provided I don't come into contact with baby oil, Munchak said. The tattoo cost $5.

Next, Bruce and I decided to try our arm at dart-tossing. Sink two darts onto two red apple targets and win a porcelain doll. It cost $2 and I left doll-less.

I then spent $1 for six pingpong balls to throw into jars of water. Hit a jar of yellow water, win an iguana. Hit the jar of green water, win a crab. A jar of blue or red water wins a gold fish. I was happy to miss those shots.

On the way out, I stopped at a trailer where Barbara Bonkowski was frying funnel cakes. Although the cakes are fried in oil, Bonkowski assured me they are fat-free.

"All the calories are on the paper plate," said Jim Bonkowski, her husband. "Don't eat the paper plate."

I bought one for $3 and a soda for $1.50. It was worth every cent.

If you go

The Pinellas County Fair, which runs through Sunday, is at the Pinellas County Fairgrounds, 7901 Park Blvd. Hours are 1 to 11 p.m. Admission is $3, free for kids 6 and younger. Parking is $1. Arm bands allowing unlimited ride access are $9 and will be good from 1 to 6 p.m. or 6 to 11 p.m. each day.

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