With every new year, it’s go-time for the people who work at the Florida State Fairgrounds.
The midway and its nearly 100 rides have to be ready for a half-million expected fun-seekers. The latest in fried fair food must be on the menu. Preparations need to be made for the big opening-day Governor’s Luncheon, including the giant carnival slide that politicians ride down as part of state fair tradition.
And only about a million other details.
“It’s a really creative space, and every day is different,” said Peyton Moritz, a marketing assistant whose job includes social media, and this year, making TikToks.
“It’s a big teamwork atmosphere,” she said.
Florida State Fair executive director Cheryl Flood describes the annual event this way: “It’s like we just had a whirlwind. And it’s gone.”
So when the state fair’s annual 12-day run was over in February, employees got to take a breath — and then started preparing to put on 250 or so other events scheduled at the fairgrounds for the rest of the year, from bridal shows to college commencements.
“There’s never a dull moment,” said Moritz.
But first, there’s the fair.
Fun fair fact: The event started more than a century ago near downtown at Henry B. Plant’s Tampa Bay Hotel, which today houses the University of Tampa. The Florida Legislature created the Florida State Fair Authority in 1975, and the fair moved to its current sprawling grounds off Interstate 4.
In the 1990s, legendary New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner — yes, the one parodied on Seinfeld — became the fair authority chairperson. Big Stein was so devoted he could be seen picking up litter on the midway. The fair is cows and concerts, whack-a-mole and feeding baby goats, double ferris wheels and kids getting sticky with cotton candy.
Employees of the Fair Authority say there’s a rhythm to the big event: The first days are crazy busy, then the dust settles and there’s time to get a look at what the team of hundreds of full-time, part-time and seasonal employees wrought.
“It’s fun,” said Moritz. “It’s pretty crazy, but it’s very rewarding just to walk around and see everybody enjoying something you had a hand in putting together.”
For her, fair food is a highlight: “I call it my 12-day cheat day,” she said. “My favorite thing has to be the fried Oreos.”
Freaky fair food has its following. This year’s offerings included a Tampa Cuban funnel cake sandwich.
“And the pickle lemonade,” said Flood. “It was definitely more pickle than lemonade” — a concoction that came on the heels of last year’s pickle pizza.
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Unique to the Florida State Fair — and booked solid for school events when it’s not fair season — is the living Florida history museum called Cracker Country, an oak-shaded oasis away from the raucous midway with buildings dating to the late 1800s and docents in period costume.
Cindy Horton, director of museum operations for the fairgrounds, says she’s usually in a state fair shirt, not a historic outfit herself: “I can’t run fast enough in my 1890s dress to be everywhere I need to be,” she said.
Held early in the year for the cooler weather, this year’s fair included an otter show, a trained recovery dog event and a demolition derby.
Employees work in administration, facilities, landscaping, equestrian team, agribusiness, event services and creative living — which handles the competitive fair exhibits including baking and woodworking.
Also part of the big event: A platoon of about 200 unpaid volunteers who greet people at the gate and walk around answering questions — “a huge part of our team,” Flood said.
“It’s a workplace where we create fun,” she said. “That’s kind of why we enjoy what we do.”
Their employee benefits package includes a 401K, medical coverage and paid time-off when the fair ends.
“We realize we take a lot of commitment,” Flood said.
On this year’s after-fair line-up: Fossil Fest, horse shows, tattoo fests, a lowrider car show, a 5K obstacle course, reptile shows, Sharkcon, an AKC dog show, boat and RV shows and concerts from Hank Williams Jr. to Fall Out Boy. An estimated 2 million people visit the fairgrounds yearly.
Moritz says she likes seeing the fair come together, but “it’s sad to see it go away. It feels like it comes and goes so quickly.”
Said Flood soon after the 2023 Florida State Fair was in the books: “We’re already starting next year’s fair.”
Florida State Fair Authority
Employees: 65 fulltime, about 50 part time, 280 seasonal
Employee comments: “No day is the same.”
“We like the constantly changing workforce environment.”
“Creating fun and hosting events is what we do every day.” “It’s a big teamwork atmosphere.”
“It’s pretty crazy, but very rewarding.”