Fried Oreos, pig races, grandstand concerts: San Diego County Fair marks its return after two-year absence

Attendees walk down the Avenue of the Palms on opening day at the San Diego County Fair in Del Mar on Wednesday.
(Adriana Heldiz / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Fairground officials, vendors and fairgoers are excited to have annual tradition restored


At 9:10 a.m. Wednesday, June 8, Joshua Barrett and Jacqueline Orellano showed up at the Del Mar Fairgrounds and became first in line for opening day of the 2022 San Diego County Fair.

Barrett, a 29-year-old native of Climax, Ga., said he fell in love with the fair when he moved to Fallbrook 10 years ago, and he deeply missed the event during the past few years because of the pandemic. He missed the 4H livestock shows, the vendor booths, the fun zone, the funnel cakes and the fried Oreos. But more than anything, he missed what the fair represents in his life.

“It didn’t feel like San Diego in June without the fair,” he said.

Joshua Barrett and Jacqueline Orellano were the first people in line for opening day of the 2022 San Diego County Fair.
Joshua Barrett and Jacqueline Orellano were the first people in line Wednesday for opening day of the San Diego County Fair, which returned this week after a three-year absence.
(Pam Kragen/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

For the first time since 2019, the full-fledged fair has returned for a 21-day run that concludes July 4. This year’s fair is slightly downsized from pre-pandemic times in its length and the number of vendors and events. But based on what vendors and fair officials have observed, it could be an oversize success.

Carlene Moore, CEO of Del Mar Fairgrounds, said Wednesday, June 8, that fair officials expect more than 1 million people to come through the gates, and enthusiasm from the public for the fair’s return has been high.

This year’s fair features more than 280 sales vendors, 110 food providers, 21 nights of free concerts in the Paddock and 15 nights of grandstand concerts and comedy shows, not to mention several small stages of live entertainment and the ever-popular Swifty Swine pig races.

Attendees walk through the main entrance of the San Diego County Fair on opening day, Wednesday.
(Adriana Heldiz/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Traditionally, the San Diego County event is the first major fair of the season for the vendors who ply the national fair circuit. This year, the Los Angeles County Fair moved its fair forward from September to May, so it became stop No. 1. Vendors arriving in San Diego this week from L.A. said they’re over the moon at the public’s enthusiasm.

Montreal-based salesman Randall Finn has been working the circuit for 25 years. He’s selling his newest product — the Cocktail Bomb, a fizzy bath-bomblike ball that adds fruity flavors to carbonated water and sparkling wine — in the Bing Crosby Hall. He described sales at the L.A. fair as a smashing success.

Randal Finn, U.S. executive distributor for Cocktail Bomb Shop, explains his product at San Diego County Fair on Wednesday.
(Adriana Heldiz/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

In the next aisle, longtime fair merchants Edie and Carlos Borel of Louisiana were setting up their sales booth for the Gripstic, a slide-on plastic clip that keeps chips and other snack bags fresh, priced at 12 for $25. The Borels also took part in the L.A. fair in May and said they had long lines of customers every day. The Borels took part last summer in Home Grown Fun, a vastly scaled down version of the San Diego County Fair and their sales exceeded expectations.

“The people who came here last year were so supportive,” Edie said. “They’d walk up to us and say, ‘what are you selling? I’ll buy it,’ because they were so grateful that we came out.”

Carlos Borel sells Gripstic bag-sealing clips at Bing Crosby Hall at the San Diego County Fair on Wednesday, June 8.
Carlos Borel sells Gripstic bag-sealing clips at Bing Crosby Hall at the San Diego County Fair on Wednesday, June 8.
(Adriana Heldiz/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Gigi Horowitz is co-owner of Mom’s Bakeshoppe, which has had a small booth in the Exhibit Hall for the past 26 years. This year, her Orange County bakery has opened its own booth on the fair’s main promenade, where cookies are baked and served fresh all day. She said sales at the L.A. fair last month were up 25 percent from pre-pandemic levels.

For many fairgoers, trying the newest foods at the fair is a top priority. But this year, fewer food vendors are experimenting with creative new concepts. Several booth operators said they’re only serving their top-selling classics this year, rather than risk a food flop after barely surviving the past two years.

One exception is Chicken Charlie’s, where this year’s innovation is the Kool-Aid chicken sandwich, featuring a fried chicken filet dipped in cherry Kool-Aid sauce. Booth worker Julius Dehessy said the new item has been a hit at other locations, but nothing can ever top the sales of the deep-fried Oreo, which has been the No. 1 seller since business owner Charlie Boghosian introduced it at the L.A. fair in 1990.

Stilt walkers great attendees on opening day of the San Diego County Fair on June 8 at the Del Mar Fairgrounds.
(Adriana Heldiz/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

On Wednesday morning, June 8, the fair got off to a quiet start with a relatively small crowd in attendance by lunchtime. San Diego city schools don’t let out until June 14, so fair officials say the biggest crowds aren’t expected until the evenings, weekends and after June 15.

Before it was canceled, the 2020 San Diego County Fair’s theme was going to be “Heroes Unite.” This year’s fair will have the same superhero theme, but it’s being called “Heroes Reunite,” in honor of the community coming back together after two years of pandemic. The themed “Hall of Heroes” exhibit near the fairgrounds entrance is an Avengers-themed display with oversize statues of Marvel movie characters like Ironman, the Hulk and Black Panther, and interactive displays where children can test their own super powers.

At one exhibit, where children could move a handle to control a swirling tornado on a video screen, Kayla Merritt of San Diego watched as her grade school-age son, Taylor, played with the toggle. She said the fair has always been the highlight of the summer for her family so she marked opening day on her calendar months ago.

“He loves superheroes, but he really just loves everything about the fair — the animals, the kids zone, the food. It’s always a fun time,” she said.

To control overcrowding and speed the entry process, the fair is selling tickets and parking online only this year and no season passes are being offered.

San Diego County Fair

When: Gates open at 11 a.m. Wednesdays-Sundays. Closed Mondays and Tuesdays, except July 4.

Where: Del Mar Fairgrounds, 2260 Jimmy Durante Blvd., Del Mar

Tickets (online only and by reservation): Adults ages 13 to 61 are $20 for Fridays-Sundays and July 4, and $15 on Wednesdays and Thursdays. Seniors 62 and up are $17 on Fridays-Sundays and July 4. Youth (ages 6 to 12) are $17 on Saturdays, Sundays and July 4, $12 on Wednesdays and Thursdays and free on Fridays. Children 5 and under are always free.

Parking (online sales only): Onsite and Del Mar Horsepark parking (with free shuttle service) is $15. Onsite preferred parking is $30. Offsite parking at Torrey Pines High School (with free shuttle service) is free.

Phone: (858) 755-1161