Go time at the San Diego County Fair

Welcome to the midway...

It’s time, once again, for our once-a-year break from political banter, land-use controversies and assorted governmental shenanigans.

As I’ve done every year since I began writing a weekly column on North County coastal issues in 2009 — initially for the North County Times, then for the San Diego Union-Tribune  — I devote one week’s missive to one of my favorite annual events: the San Diego County Fair.

And, as a special bonus, and back my popular demand, the illustration we have chosen to accompany this column is that same oh-so-cute picture we ran last year of a high-shorted, Howdy-Doody-haired me at the fair at the age of 4 with my mom.

This year the fair kicked off Friday, June 3, and as always runs through the Fourth of July weekend. Every year the fair has a theme, and this year it’s “Alice in Wonderland.”

This year, I’m not going to ramble on about my favorite fair memories. All right, I’ve got just one: I used to love the little anoles that used to be sold in the Midway, passed off as “chameleons,” with little leashes that attached to your shirt with a safety pin so you could parade around with the poor things all day.

And, oh yes, I was a big fan of the freak shows, which sadly came to an end in the late 1980s after I wrote a piece about the Fat Lady and her sad, troubled life. I’ll never forget how one booth featured the “dog-faced boy,” and then a week later, perhaps to drum up more traffic, rebranded the poor critter the “boy-faced dog.”

Those days are gone, long gone, due to our growing intolerance for animal cruelty and making fun of the less fortunate. More recently, the elephant rides my kids used to look forward to have been banished from the fair, as well.

Tommy boy, age 4, with mom at the Fair.

Tommy boy, age 4, with mom at the Fair.

And yet these slices of the past remain in my mind. Heck, who knows, maybe I was traumatized. In retrospect, pinning animals to kids’ shirts and putting people with disabilities on display were horrible, even barbaric, practice.

But enough with the past. I promised I wouldn’t reminisce, so let me finish this column with tips on how best to enjoy the fair and what to look for — this, from a guy who’s been there three times in week one of its run, and plans on going back at least another three or four times (more, if I can find the time).

Ground Zero for anything fried -- Chicken Charlies.

Ground Zero for anything fried — Chicken Charlies.

• The best food is the bacon-wrapped sausage at the booth in the little corridor between the garden show and Bing Crosby Hall. Get the big sausage, not the wiener, and make sure you get plenty of grilled onions and peppers.

• If you are eating a second meal at the fair, to give your stomach a break I suggest Roxy, within a few feet of the bacon-wrapped sausage place. Try the artichoke sandwich with salad. Your stomach will thank you.

• If you have kids or just like rides, go on one of the “wristband” days, which give you unlimited rides through 8 p.m. I went with three teenagers and spent $90. (They cost $35 each, but there are lots of $5 discount codes available online.) I kept track of the rides and figured that even if I had purchased the biggest sheet of tickets at a discount (72 for $50, regularly 75 cents each) it would have cost me $243 — and we didn’t get there until after 3 p.m. Wristband days still to come are June 22, June 23, June 29 and June 30. Buy them online at sdfair.com.

• Don’t overlook the hobby and photo shows in the grandstand. The photos, especially, are fascinating. Thanks to digital photography the quality of the amateur work is better than it’s ever been.

• Sunday teas in the garden are magical. Tea Time in Wonderland offers two 90-minute seatings, each for a maximum of 48 people, and you get to make a cool party hat straight out of Lewis Carroll’s wonderfully wacked-out mind.

Traditional pig racing?

Traditional pig racing?

• Don’t miss the “Alice in Wonderland” exhibit. The first exhibit hall to your right as you enter the fair has in recent years been set aside as a museum honoring the year’s theme. This year’s exhibit features some great vintage artwork from old “Alice in Wonderland” books, along with a Mad Hatter’s disco and an exhibit of paintings from the Jefferson Airplane’s Grace Slick, who since retiring from music has become a painter whose favorite subject is the white rabbit immortalized in the books — and in the Jefferson Airplane’s 1967 hit “White Rabbit.”

• The entertainment’s always marvelous, but this year visit the fair on June 30 and you’ll get the chance to see Brian Wilson, the genius behind the Beach Boys, recreate the band’s masterpiece, the 1966 Pet Sounds album, the inspiration for the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album. (Trivia note: the Pet Sounds cover shot, showing the boys in the band feeding goats, was taken at the petting corral at the San Diego Zoo.)

• Yes, we’re going to end with this: If the fair food is getting to you and you prefer a little privacy, head up the stairs of the grandstand to the Red Star Café. It’s got the cleanest restroom on the entire fairgrounds, and is not nearly as crowded as the other ones in the center of the action.

Thomas K. Arnold Thomas K. Arnold is a veteran San Diego journalist who throughout the 80s and 90s wrote for the San Diego County Edition of the Los Angeles Times, the San Diego Reader and San Diego Magazine. He has won numerous awards from the San Diego Press Club and the San Diego Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Arnold is currently publisher and editorial director of Home Media Magazine, a weekly trade publication serving the $20 billion home entertainment industry. He is a former City of Carlsbad planning commissioner, editorial editor and editorial writer for U-T San Diego, and columnist for U-T San Diego and the North County Times.

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