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San Diego County Fair returns: Fun rides, fried foods and music

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An aerial view of the San Diego County Fair at sunset.
Fred Greaves

The San Diego County Fair is back, featuring a “Wonderful Wizard of Oz” theme in a nod to the classic children’s tale by L. Frank Baum.

The San Diego County Fair is back, featuring a “Wonderful Wizard of Oz” theme in a nod to the classic children’s tale by L. Frank Baum. The festivities will kick off at 4 p.m. May 31 and continue through the July Fourth holiday.

“The fair’s theme is quite special to San Diegans, because Oz author L. Frank Baum is thought to have found inspiration for at least three of his 14 Oz books during his extended stays in Coronado,” said Katie Mueller, deputy general manager of fairtime operations. “Though most people know Oz only through the famous movie, the fair has chosen to bring the books to life, including a few differences that will be a surprise to most. For instance, Dorothy’s famous slippers are silver, not ruby.”

Perhaps not-so-surprising will be all of the Oz-themed attractions, decor and food stationed around the fairgrounds.

At the Theme Exhibit, fairgoers will have the chance to see original props from the 1939 movie, borrowed from the USC Libraries and the Oz Museum in Wamego, Kan. One of the items to be displayed is a Munchkin jacket. There’s also a chance to “Ask The Wizard” whatever one’s heart desires. And on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays (excluding opening weekend), there is a “Winged Monkey DJ Party” with DJ Man Cat, who will play electronic music to pump up revelers.

From June 13-16 and June 27-30, Oz historian John Fricke will speak about “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” book and film. He is the author of several OZ books and a Primetime Emmy Award winner.

Oz photo opportunities should be plentiful, as costumed characters will mingle with the crowd. Visitors can also pose in any of nearly a dozen “selfie spots” featuring scenes such as the tornado and the Yellow Brick Road.

“It will be an Oz-some experience,” San Diego County Fair Night Information Manager Mark Zegan said.

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The Mediterranean’s Chocolate Bacon Baklava on display at the press preview for this year’s “Wizard of Oz” themed San Diego County Fair on May 14 in Del Mar.
Eduardo Contreras / The San Diego Union-Tribune

The fair’s fare

Every year, there are creative concoctions, and some vendors will be catering to the fair’s theme. The Indian Fry Bread stand will offer Ding Dong the Witch is Dead - a decadent dessert of chocolate cake and peanut butter with a chocolate chip cheesecake filling. The Original Fish & Chips will introduce Wicked Witch’s Sriracha Ceviche, and Ten Pound Buns will market its Oz-some Avocado Toast. Pink’s Hot Dogs will top off its lineup with a Scarecrow Dog, while Tasti Burgers will roll out its Emerald City Fire Burger with avocado, ghost pepper cheese and jalapeños. The Lollipop Guild candy store will satisfy one’s sweet tooth.

Some of the fair’s more unusual foods can be found at Chicken Charlie’s. This season, there will be Deep-Fried Creme Brûlée and the Buffalo Chicken & Macaroni and Cheese Chimichanga, and the return of Deep Fried Kool-Aid. Bacon-A-Fair will have El Salvadorian Bacon, Bean and Cheese Pupusas, while the Cardiff Seaside Market will unveil its Cardiff Crack Barbecue Sliders.

Other fan favorites that will be available include chicken and waffles, barbecue and Hot Dog on a Stick.

Riders up!

Zegan predicted that a new experience that may cause a bit of a buzz - and also ties in with the Oz theme - is the Magical Balloon Adventures. Visitors can begin and end aerial adventures from the fair, weather-permitting, on a daily basis. The packages - which cost $211 per adult and $191 for ages 5 to 11 - include fair admission; a champagne, juice or mimosa toast; a cheese-and-chocolate plate; celebratory banners; souvenir pictures; a commemorative flight certificate; and 2-for-1 wine tasting vouchers to various Southern California wineries. Rides must be booked in advance at www.hotairfun.com/san-diego-fair.

There are also a couple of new rides in the Fun Zone to test one’s courage. The Endeavour is billed as a “speedier version of the classic Ferris wheel,” as it elevates fairgoers 60 feet into the air at 25 mph and 3G acceleration, but also twists riders upside-down. An even faster - and taller - ride is Speed, as thrill-seekers experience 3.5Gs while whirling 120 feet in the air, also with upside-down motion.

New for 2019, a FunPass - available as a card and as an app - will allow one to pre-purchase ride and game tickets. The barcode on the pass is scanned at each ride or game and the cost is deducted. The card can be bought at carnival ticket booths; instructions on downloading the app can be found at sdfair.com.

There will also be limited FastPasses available daily, sold at carnival ticket booths. The $20 FastPass is an add-on option for the FunPass or a Pay-One-Price ride wristband, and can only be used on the day of purchase.

Music, movies and more

Entertainment will be everywhere around the fairgrounds, from concerts headlined by international superstars to contests that uncover up-and-coming artists.

The biggest draw is expected to be the Toyota Summer Concert Series, with performers varying from country music star Jake Owen to comedian Jim Gaffigan and rapper Pitbull. There will also be a Battle of the Bands, a singer/songwriter contest, and a 24-Hour Film Festival.

New this year is the San Diego’s Got Talent competition for youths and teens. The contest will be divided into two categories: ages 8-12, and ages 13-17.

A not-so-secret secret

Several years ago, the fair introduced a speakeasy, and because of its growing popularity, it will be open daily this season. The tropical-inspired Wicked Wahine will offer Hawaiian bite-sized appetizers (pupus) and specialty cocktails in a hidden location high above the fair - but the trick is to find it. This will require asking around for directions. (Hint: Try inquiring at the Moon Valley Nursery Exchange.)

Soaring spirits

Festivals will abound during the nearly five-week timespan, with celebrations that highlight everything from cultures to award-winning libations.

The ninth annual Out at the Fair will be part of opening weekend. The family-friendly LGBTQ events will kick off Pride Month 2019 on June 1 with exhibits and performances, including an OATF Comedy Show at 8 p.m. in the Turf Club.

On June 8, the Toast of the Coast will showcase international vintages. There are two tasting sessions, from 1 to 3:30 p.m. and 4 to 6:30 p.m., and the $67 general admission fee includes a souvenir tasting glass with unlimited samplings. VIP Winemakers’ Tastings - which adds pairings with foods ranging from Grilled Spanish Octopus to chocolates - are from 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. and 2:30 to 6:30 p.m., for $115. Prices include fair admission; go to thetoastofthecoast.com.

The San Diego International Beer Festival is slated from June 14-16, with five tasting sessions and hundreds of brews. General admission, which includes unlimited 1-ounce tastings, is $60; VIP tickets - which are $115 - also include food pairings from brewery chefs and a souvenir sampling glass. Last year, the San Diego International Beer Competition had nearly 1,500 entries from 260 breweries representing 25 states and 10 countries. And in addition to sampling sessions, there’s a Gold Medal Beer Pairing Dinner from 6 to 8:30 p.m. June 13, for $78 per person, and a new barrel toss competition to entertain the crowd. Fair admission is included in ticket prices; go to sandiegobeerfestival.com.

Sandwiched in between the beer festival dates - on June 15 - is the Asian and Pacific Islander Festival. Attendees can expect traditional and popular foods, entertainment and martial arts, along with examples of Asian flowers and gardening in the Paul Ecke Jr. Flower Show. Countries to be represented include China, India, Japan, Philippines, Korea, Hawaii, Polynesia and Vietnam.

The following week - on June 22 - is the Distilled Spirit & Cocktail Festival in the paddock, with more than 150 tequilas, whiskeys, vodkas and other libations. There will also be a live mixology competition and “Meet the Maker” educational sessions.

“Every year, this (event) gets bigger,” Zegan said.

Fair entry is included with tickets. A 10-tab wristband is provided with general admission ($35-$45.50), while the VIP experience has unlimited samplings and VIP lounge access with foods ($130-$140.50). Go to distilledsandiego.com.

June 22 will focus on spirits of another kind, as the Gospel Festival will encompass all four stages, all day long. It will culminate in a concert at 7 p.m. - The Clark Sisters with The Walls Group.

Let the games begin

Esports (video game competitions) have been steadily gaining more attention, and the fair will have a setup in the 17 Hands Restaurant & Cantina near the paddock. Along with gaming tournaments, Zegan said there will be eight Nintendo Switches, two gaming PCs and arcade machines available for play, with coaches on site to provide gaming tips. Furthermore, there will be presentations on developing healthier and productive gaming habits.

‘Emerald’ exhibits

The theme of the Garden Show is “There’s No Place Like Home,” and a variety of landscape exhibits and individual container plants will be on display.

Meanwhile, the Flower Show will have the region’s largest exhibition of award-winning floral specimens. More than 5,000 fresh-cut blooms and floral designs will be presented, and there will be competitions for both amateur and professional floral designers.

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The Swifty Swine Racing Pigs will entertain several times in the Durante Arena.
Fred Greaves Photography

Lions and tigers and … pigs? Oh my!

At the fair, it’s the pigs - not the horses - that race around an oval in front of cheering crowds. Bearing names such as Ham Solo and Britney Spareribs, these potbellied porkers will make a mad dash for Oreo cookies that wait for them on a silver platter at the finish line. The Swifty Swine Racing Pigs will entertain several times daily in the Durante Arena.

High hopes

Zegan said the San Diego County Fair’s attendance has been averaging about 1.5 million in recent years.

“We hope to get 1.6 million (this year), the weather being hopefully good,” he said.

San Diego County Fair 2019

• Dates: May 31-July 4 (closed Mondays and Tuesdays in June)

• Location: Via de la Valle and Jimmy Durante Boulevard

• Admission: Adults (13-61)-$20, Seniors (62+)-$14; Kids (6-12)-$14, free on Fridays; Kids (5 and younger)-Free; discounted tickets and package information, sdfair.com

• Parking: General-$17, Preferred-$27; off-site parking with shuttles available at the Del Mar Horsepark ($5), and Torrey Pines High School and MiraCosta College’s San Elijo campus (free)

• Information: (858) 755-1161, sdfair.com