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Attendance dropped at San Diego County Fair this year, but people stayed longer and spent more

People walk around at the San Diego County Fair
Fair attendees at the Del Mar Fairgrounds on July 1.
(Ariana Drehsler/For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The fair, which comes to a close Monday, saw a daily average attendance of 46,000

Lyndsay Preza has been coming to the San Diego County Fair for 14 years with her fiancé. The Fallbrook resident used to come with her grandparents, too.

So she was happy to see the fair make a comeback this summer after a two-year, pandemic-induced hiatus.

“It’s nostalgic,” Preza said while sipping on a Bloody Mary with her mother on Sunday, July 3. “It’s fun, it’s a tradition. It’s nice to be back.”

One of San Diego’s favorite traditions will wrap up on Monday, July 4. The 21-day fair ran six days shorter than in 2019, and daily attendance was down from what it was before COVID-19 struck. (In 2021, the 22nd District Agricultural Association hosted a scaled-down event called HomeGrownFun, with no midway and fewer other attractions.)

But people stayed longer and spent more at the fair this year, said Jennifer Hellman, fair spokesperson.

“It’s so awesome. It’s so fun to have everybody back … everyone’s in a really great mood, I can tell you that,” Hellman said.

People ride the Tilt-A-Whirl at the San Diego County Fair
People ride the Tilt-A-Whirl at the San Diego County Fair.
(Ariana Drehsler/For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

This year attendance rounded out at a daily average of 46,000, down 19 percent from 56,700 in 2019.

Two days before the conclusion of the fair, total attendance was 848,146. In 2019, total attendance reached 1,531,199 over 27 days.

This year’s numbers met fair officials’ goals, which were set lower than in 2019 partly because of nationwide supply-chain issues and staffing shortages, Hellman said.

“We were a little bit uncertain still of the pandemic, along with just kind of the staffing shortages and supply shortages and all those things,” Hellman said. “We didn’t know what we could handle.”

It was difficult for fair officials to get enough paper to print daily schedules and maps, brochures and tickets, Hellman said. Several fair suppliers had labor shortages, so things like ribbons, trophies and buckles used for exhibit awards took longer than usual to obtain.

And this year only about 1,000 staff worked the fair, compared to more than 2,400 in 2019.

“Everyone’s working a lot harder,” Hellman said. “We’ve just had to do things smarter.”

The Big Top Swinger at the San Diego County Fair
The Big Top Swinger at the San Diego County Fair.
(Ariana Drehsler/For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

To make do with the smaller staff, fair officials outsourced some services, including design and medical services, Hellman said.

Hellman also noted that far fewer complimentary fair tickets were distributed this year and discount ticket sales were switched from in-person sales at grocery stores to online discount codes.

While attendance is down, fair spending has reached new levels. In 2019, there was one day when concession spending topped $1 million. This year, there have been at least four days where that milestone was reached, according to Hellman.

“I really think people missed it,” Hellman said. “I really think people were missing … the things that feel normal for their family.”

On Sunday, July 3, hundreds of people lined up at the fair gates before opening. By noon, Interstate 5 North was backed up with cars queued to get into parking lots.

People walk around at the San Diego County Fair
The ticket line at the Ferris wheel.
(Ariana Drehsler/For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Upon entering the front gates, guests were greeted with the smell of smoked turkey legs roasting in the sun and of popping kettle corn. The main avenue of the fair was stacked with food vendors boasting fried and sweet foods galore, including bacon-wrapped chicken, giant cinnamon rolls, fried Oreos, funnel cakes, chili cheese waffle fries, fried frog legs and Krispy Kreme ice cream sandwiches.

Families toted kids and strollers, young students flocked together in small groups and couples walked while holding hands.

Fair attendees said they came for the vibe, San Diego’s ideal weather, an array of foods and drinks, and time to spend with family and friends.

Mira Mesa resident Jeanette Alvarado has been coming to the fair for more than 10 summers, even traveling down from Imperial Valley when she used to live there.

“We have our own (in Imperial Valley), but this one’s so much bigger,” said Alvarado, who came to the fair with her boyfriend, Kevin Herrera.

The food offerings were a big draw for Alvarado and others; one of her favorites is the corn dog. She and Herrera have a tradition of taking photos in the photo booth. On Sunday morning they sipped a draft Blue Moon and a passionfruit orange hard kombucha while listening to a band play on the Paddock Stage.

“I feel like I got a part of my summer back,” Alvarado said.

The midway at the San Diego County Fair
Midway games at the San Diego County Fair.
(Ariana Drehsler/For The San Diego Union-Tribune)


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