The deep fryers are heating up, the baby chicks are ready to cuddle and the Ferris wheel is poised for spins as the Florida State Fair opens Thursday for a 12-day run. It's the first state fair of the year in the nation, thanks to Florida's balmy weather.
Thursday is opening day, which means the Governors Luncheon kicks things off with every politico thinking of running for office on hand for camera time. Founded in 1904 as an exposition in downtown Tampa, the fair is now the official state fair of Florida. Last year, the fair drew more than 440,000 visitors, an 11 percent bump from 2016, according to carnivalwarehouse.com, an industry website that ranks fairs nationwide.
The Tampa fairgrounds will be hopping through Feb. 19 with a hipper mix than years past of extreme sports, Disney stars and stunt shows among more than 15 acres of entertainment. It will have the largest midway in North America, a bumper crop of farm animals, the usual old-fashioned exhibits and anything you can think of deep fried and served on stick.
So put on some comfortable walking shoes and take a stroll through our fair-going guide.
The Florida State Fairgrounds are at 4802 U.S. 301 N, Tampa. Expect heavy traffic on the weekends. Plan to arrive early or after 4 p.m., or consider going on a weekday.
Getting in: Opens daily at 10 a.m. with free parking, with the midway opening at 1 p.m. On Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays and Presidents Day, gates will open at 9 a.m. with the midway opening at 10 a.m. Entry tickets are $13, $7 ages 6-11, $9 seniors; $35 any-day armband; $25 weekday armband. The fair went to a paper ticket system this year and eliminated re-loadable Fun Cards. If you decide not to buy an armband, ride ticket prices are $12 for 10 tickets; $25 for 25 tickets; and $50 for 55 tickets. Buy them at the gate or by calling (813) 621-7821 or visiting floridastatefair.com.
Good to know: This year brings an expanded welcome plaza between Gate 2 and Gate 3 with fair staff on hand to provide maps and general information to help plan the day.
Security: Because of past issues, such as when a teenager died leaving the fair trying to cross Interstate 4, students in grades 6 through 12 must be accompanied by an adult 21 and older after 6 p.m.
Rides: There are more than 110 rides, divided by a Thrill Zone, Kid Zone and the Family Zone, which has high-capacity rides that parents and kids can ride together. The tallest ride is the Midway Sky Eye, the largest portable Ferris wheel in North America, towering at 155 feet tall. The fastest ride is the RC 48 Coaster, with a steep 70-foot climb and large curved drops and banked turns.
Getting around: Over the past several years, the midway has added wider walkways to reduce crowding and more seating, and this year brings two dozen additional comfort stations with umbrellas, benches and picnic tables. Storage lockers have been added throughout the fairgrounds this year. There are also phone charging stations this year and baby changing stations located in major buildings, including family bathrooms. This year adds a mother's nook located in the Expo Hall for nursing mothers.
Just what will they deep fry or wrap in bacon this year? Old favorites will return, such as the deep-fried Twinkie and Oreo, the funnel cakes, cotton candy and the increasingly popular Amish doughnuts that are as big as a steering wheel.
Specialty foods: This year Pinellas County Culinary Arts students at Tarpon Springs and Osceola Fundamental high schools competed to have their recipe featured at the fair. The winning recipes from the students are a peanut butter, banana and marshmallow funnel cake and also Asian meatballs. Their recipes will be featured in the 2018 Florida State Fair cookbook.
Extreme eats: Some of the new oddities and food interests this year include:
• Southern Catfish Sundae: Hand-cut french fries, Southern fried catfish and a slightly spicy Southern remoulade sauce or tangy tartar sauce.
• Barbecue Pulled Pork Ribbon Fries: Ribbon-cut potatoes fried golden, topped with warm cheddar cheese, sour cream, fresh cooked bacon, hickory smoked pulled pork, and sweet barbecue sauce drizzled on top.
• Deep Fried Strawberry Shortcake: Fresh strawberries mixed into cheesecake filling, frozen, dipped in batter, deep fried and topped with whipped cream and drizzled with strawberry frosting. Did we mention it's served on a stick?
• Banana Frenkel Funnel Cake: Bananas and spices blended in the cake batter, fried to golden brown, and topped with custard, bananas and your choice of chocolate or caramel.
• Chicken and Waffles Pizza: It's a syrup-based pie topped with fried chicken, waffle pieces, bacon, mozzarella and more syrup.
Finding the food: Get a map from the Welcome Center between the Florida Center and the Special Events Center (Gates 2 and 3) to find the vendors you seek. There may be some concessionaires taking cash only, but ATMs are located throughout the fairgrounds.
Opening Day: Thursday is also Heroes Day, so military and first responders are admitted free with up to three family members.
Senior Days: On Monday through Feb. 16, seniors get in for $9 at the gate.
Hungry Howie's Family Night: Two adults and two children get admission and rides for $50. Present a coupon from Hungry Howie's and take an additional $5 off. Monday-Wednesday and Feb. 15.
Coke Day: Get admission for $5 all day with a Coke can or bottle on Feb. 19. Also, Polk, Pinellas, Sarasota and Manatee County students get in free with a school ticket.
$5 Admission: After 5 p.m. on Feb. 16.
There are more than 5,000 animals to see, pet and even feed.
Butterfly Experience: You can use a nectar-soaked sponge to feed a butterfly at this exhibit in the Agriculture Hall of Fame building.
Mooternity Ward: Overlook the groan-worthy name to witness the miracle of life of a mother cow giving birth to a calf in the Salute to Agriculture Exhibit next to the Agriculture Hall of Fame. That's also the hall where kids can bottle feed a calf or hold a baby chick.
Rabbit and Poultry Show: It's a cuteness overload here where you can see a variety of breeds of rabbits and baby chicks. There's also a rabbit hair spinning demonstration.
Batcopter: The original Batcopter from the 1966 TV Batman series and movie is on display and available for rides for an extra charge.
Cracker Country: Step back in time in this rustic turn-of-the-century village with original historic buildings of the early 1900s in rural Florida.
Teen Stars Live Tour: Kids can hang with some of favorite teens stars including Disney's Calum Worthy (Dez from Austin & Ally), Kevin Quinn (Xander from Bunk'd), Sky Katz (Tess from Raven's Home) and Addison Riecke (Nora from Nickelodeon's The Thundermans) will be appearing on the Coca-Cola Stage in the Entertainment Hall on Saturday at 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. and Sunday at 1 and 4 p.m.
Concerts: Catch the Country Gold Tour concert on Wednesday, included with admission, at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. Performers include Leroy Van Dyke, Moe Bandy, Rhonda Vincent and the Rage and TG Sheppard. Also Kazual the a capella quartet, and comedy/rock performer Dennis Lee playing three times a day on the Tampa Bay Times Stage. Vocal Trash, described as, "Glee Meets Stomp," and pop rockers Fuel on Fire play Thursday through Feb. 13 on the Sleep Number stage.
Elvis Extravaganza: This national competition of Elvis impersonators will be on the Coca-Cola Stage Tuesday through Feb. 15.
Mini Monster Trucks: The small scale monster truck teams in the Stampede Arena consists of kids drivers (age 6-17) who do the same tricks as the big trucks: ramping cars, freestyling and racing. Friday and Saturday at 3 and 7 p.m.
Trashion Fashion: See the creative ways designers use 75 percent recycled material on the Coca Cola Stage Friday at 2 p.m.
Demolition Derby: It's been decades since the fair had its last demolition derby. Cars will crash and smash until there is only one left standing on Feb. 17 in the Stampede Arena at 7 p.m.
Central Florida Rat Pack: Tribute show on the Coca Cola Stage Feb. 16 at 10:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m.
United States Lawn Mower Association Race: Racing around the track in their modified, riding lawn mowers, races will be held Feb. 17-18 at 1 p.m. in the Stampede Arena.
Terrier Dog Races: Cute pups from the Jack Russell Terrier Club compete for the gold medal as they race across the course Sunday at noon in the Equestrian Stampede Arena.
Laser Light Shows: 7 and 9 p.m. nightly in the Expo Hall.
BMX/FMX Freestyle Madness: This extreme sports show is found in the Grand Prix Arena in the Equestrian Center at 2, 5 and 8 p.m. daily.
The Ninja Experience: Found next to the Big Wheel, this team of martial arts experts were featured on America's Got Talent.
Hollywood Circus: See traditions of the classic circus with Friesian horses, stunt and acrobatic acts, and of course, the goofy clown under the red and yellow tent on the grounds in 2018.
Camel Rides: Next to the circus.
Hollywood Racing Pigs: Watch Kim Kardashi-ham and Notorious PIG race for the win.
Giraffic Menagerie: Meet and feed Twiggs the giraffe and his exotic friends this display many animals.
One Man Band: Called a "Musical Illusion," this strolling act can trick an ear into hearing a band performance from a solo musician.
Fritters: These colorful furry characters will stroll around the fairgrounds begging for attention.
Max Power the Robot: High-tech strolling robot.
Professor Smart: A comedy show that brings science to life with experiments daily at 6 p.m.
K-9 In Flight: Found in the Grove, this crew of Frisbee dog entertainers have been seen on The Discovery Channel, ESPN, The Disney Channel, Animal Planet, HBO, MTV and more.
Extreme Illusion & Escapes: Found in the Mall Area, Josh and Leah Knotts are a Merlin-award winning illusionist and escape artist team. Their theatrical show consists of large scale illusions and skillful escapes.
Welde's Big Bear Show: Three generations of Hollywood bear trainers now operate a preserve in Myakka City. The show teaches a message of conservation and preservation in an exhibit filled with bear facts and information while admiring the natural beauty and often comical antics of the bears.
Sea Lion Splash: Across from Florida Forest Discovery Center the sea lions balance balls, shoot hoops, dance, perform handstands and is the only show in the U.S. which features Californian and South American sea lions.
PBS Kids Fun Zone: Called "the single largest gathering of PBS Kids characters ever assembled," kids can meet old favorites like Elmo, Arthur, Curious George and Clifford as well as new favorites Buddy Dinosaur, Peg + Cat, Super Why and more. There will be also be story time and a kid's dance party as well as crafts. Open daily10 a.m.-6 p.m. in the Red Room of the Florida Center.