Crank up the deep fryers, the Florida State Fair is returning for 12 days of midway rides, livestock tents, circus acts, live music and food — lots of food.
In addition to the biggest midway in the nation and every possible deep-fried concoction, this year’s fair comes with a new admission policy for minors: After 6 p.m. each day, kids ages 17 and younger must be accompanied by an admission-paying guardian 21 or older. The adult can supervise up to four people. As another safety measure, all admission gates will close promptly at 9 p.m., though the midway will stay open late into the night.
As the first state fair in the country in the calendar year, the Florida State Fair feels an obligation to add more than the typical assortment of rides, games, agricultural exhibits and events. The birthplace of the doughnut burger has a reputation to live up to with its weird food.
“Year after year, the Florida State Fair looks forward to introducing new and exciting food and beverage items to fairgoers,” said Chery Flood, executive director of the Florida State Fair. “Our state fair is the first to open across the country each year, so we are thrilled to set the standard with our unique and talented vendors.”
The fair, which runs Feb. 9 through Feb. 20, was founded more than 100 years ago as a chance for the state to showcase its agricultural industry. In 1915, local leaders combined Tampa’s Gasparilla carnival with a mid-winter festival to create the Florida State Fair. It became widely known for its competitions between livestock owners showing off their prized pigs and cattle and strange sights like fire-eating and sword-swallowing.
Once you step into the fairgrounds, look for the information booths scattered across several kiosks. In addition to a map of the free entertainment and exhibits available, you can get an information card to find the locations of all the fair’s new food and entertainment options.
Here’s a guide on what to look for.
Returning favorites such as funnel cakes, towering burgers and the oversized Amish doughnuts should not be overlooked. But this year offers some new challenges, like a Cuban sandwich funnel cake and dill pickles in lemonade. Some highlights:
- Walking Nacho Dog: Combine a classic hot dog with nacho toppings like jalapeno peppers, chips and cheese sauce to satisfy all salty and savory cravings. Location: DeAnna’s Diner.
- Hot Cheeto Burger: A beef patty is covered in gooey melty cheese and topped with, you guessed it, Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. Location: Top Notch Concessions.
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- Tampa Cuban Funnel Cake Sandwich: Debuting at this year’s fair, it places the contents of a traditional Cuban sandwich (Spanish pork, smoked ham, Genoa salami, Swiss cheese, dill pickles and mustard) between two funnel cakes. And then, it gets topped with a doughnut glaze “for the ultimate Tampa fair creation.” Location: The Best Around.
- Mexican Street Corn Pizza: A thin pizza is topped with buttered sweet corn, mozzarella cheese, drizzled with mayo, Parmesan cheese and Tajin seasoning. Location: Angela’s Pizza
- Dill Pickle Lemonade: Wash down your cold lemonade with pickles in a pickle juice-infused drink garnished with a fresh-cut pickle. Location: Miller & Company Concessions
- Dillylicious Loaded Pickles: Going way beyond fried pickles, these are topped with bacon, ranch dressing and cheese. Location: Chester’s Gators & Taters
- Fried Key Lime Pie: How do you incorporate the classic flavors of a Key lime pie into a fair-centric dessert? Pile Key lime pie filling, graham crackers and buttercream frosting atop mini doughnuts. Location: DeAnna’s Steak Sundaes.
- Cookie Taco Supreme: A chocolate chip cookie does duty as a taco shell that is filled with s’mores ice cream and topped with Oreos, whipped cream and a cherry on top. Location: Funky Flamingo.
To find the full list of belly busters, see floridastatefair.com/fair/food/.
Attractions and rides
Before you get hungry, you can check out the thrill shows, racing pigs, trapeze artists and performing otters, among the many distractions on the sprawling fairgrounds property. There are also giraffe encounters, Circus Hollywood, magicians and dozens of free entertainment options offered each day.
On Feb. 17 and 18, the popular annual Demolition Derby returns to the Covered Arena, where drivers compete and crash into one another as they try to be the one who keeps their engine running the longest. It is loud and a lot of fun to watch at 6 p.m. Feb. 17 and 4 p.m. Feb. 18.
Get a ride armband to save money on the country’s largest midway of more than 100 rides. They are divided by intensity, from kiddie to thrill rides.
You can find the height requirements and how many tickets you will need on the website for Wade Shows, the purveyor of the fair’s rides. One of the most popular attractions is the largest portable Ferris wheel in North America, called the Midway Sky Eye. It towers over the fair at 155 feet.
One unique aspect of the fair is Cracker County, a living history museum that transports visitors back to the 19th century. There are also a few original buildings that date from the late 1800s to the early 1900s. During the fair, costumed interpreters portray the daily living experience of Florida’s pioneers.
There will also be an otter adventure, hot glass demonstrations, dragon tamers with Mythic Creatures, grand illusion shows, racing pigs, a cycle circus, daredevil performances and tons of live music performances.
More than 6,000 animals will be brought to the fair for a range of competitions and exhibits. But there are also lots of educational exhibits about agriculture.
You can pet a cow, or learn about and taste the process of making freshly squeezed Florida orange juice. If you time it right at the Mooternity Ward, you can see a calf being born and hold a baby chick or piglet. You can also see milking demonstrations, and there are lots of places to feed the animals inside the Ag-Venture section of the fair.
The Florida State Fair also includes competitions, from quilts and pies to fine art, in addition to all the animals competing for best in show, including cattle, poultry, llamas, sheep and swine. The range of competitors, from wine to technology, also creates a nice shopping opportunity.
Heroes Day, Feb. 9: Free admission for law enforcement, first responders, active or retired military, veterans, doctors, nurses, hospital and emergency clinic staff with valid ID.
Senior Days: Monday-Friday $10 admission at the gate for seniors 55 and older.
Date Night Valentine Deal, Feb. 14: Buy one, get one free admission after 3 p.m.
$3 Thursday, Feb.16: $3 admission, rides, games and select food items after 3 p.m.
Family Day, Feb. 17 and Feb. 20: Free admission for kids under the age of 18 with a paid adult admission until 6 p.m. Fairgoers under the age of 18 must be accompanied by a guardian, 21 years or older, after 6 p.m. Each paid adult can accompany up to four kids.
If you go
Florida State Fair: With agriculture exhibits and contests, the nation’s largest midway and loads of food vendors, it runs Feb. 9-20. Gates open at 11 a.m. Monday-Thursday and 10 a.m. Friday-Sunday. 4800 U.S. 301, Tampa.
Admission: Online prices $10 adults, $8 seniors, $6 age 6-11. At the gate, $11-$15 adult, $10 child. Any Day ride armband online $30, weekday armband $20; at the gate, $25-$40. Get tickets at floridastatefair.com/tickets.