Insider's note: In honor of this year's Ontario County Fair, we're bringing back a blog about 2011's fair by Insider Laurie Adams. For more information about this year's fair which runs July 22 - 26, make sure to visit www.ontariocountyfair.org.
Where can you take your family for a few hours of fun and entertainment and only have to spend $5?
One place in the Finger Lakes is The Ontario County Fair in Canandaigua. For a $5 parking fee per vehicle, you enter the fairgrounds and never have to spend another cent unless you choose to. While the fair offers exhibits and many programs that are free to the public, very few of us can walk away from a country fair without spending a little more money to enjoy the other amenities the fair has to offer. But, I lured you with the tease that you don't have to spend more than $5, so first I'll explain how you can have a good time on so little money. What can you do for free?
To start, because this is primarily a 4-H fair, a main focus is on the exhibits of livestock, poultry, sewing, gardening, baking and woodworking projects (among others) that are the 4-Hers' undertakings from the past year. It's easy to spend a great deal of time meandering through the aisles of the exhibition barns enjoying the excitement of the families who want you to see their livestock. From the draft horses that are as high as six feet tall at the withers (that's the part of the horse where the neck and back connect just above the shoulders) to the blue-feathered chicken in the poultry barn, there is so much to take in. One young boy eagerly invited visitors to meet his calf, Dover, and even offered the privilege of petting her. If you're an animal lover or someone with children, a stroll through these barns is a must. (Spoiler alert! In case you're curious, the blue chicken is actually a white chicken that had been bathed in blue Kool-aid.)
If hanging around animals is your thing, then you can get your fill throughout the week if you attend any of the free shows. There are dog, horse, cattle, sheep and swine shows. There's even a rooster crowing contest.
After you leave the livestock area, there's still so much more to do for free. An exhibit that is very popular with families with young children is The Wild Animal Experience at the Exotic and Domestic Petting Zoo. There is a wide variety of animals, some native to the area, most not. Your first encounter may be with a large camel that is very docile and accessible for petting. Then, as you make your way around the fenced zoo area, you find friendly goats to pet and feed, bear cubs, a turtle from Africa, llamas and a few other wild beasts from South America and Asia, a miniature horse from the U.S. and a rare donkey from Italy. The signs on the cages turn this into an educational experience as you learn about the animals and their natural habitats. (P.S. There seemed to be many child-free adults here, too, so apparently this exhibit caters to that kid in all of us.)
Moving beyond the barns and petting zoo, there's still more free entertainment. One exhibitor is a wood sculptor using a chain saw to carve a bear statue out of an upright tree trunk. His skill is mesmerizing, and fair-goers who stop find it difficult to walk away before he's finished his masterpiece.
With half hour shows sprinkled throughout the day, The Great Lakes Timber Show combines "log-related" competitions with clean family humor to captivate audiences of all ages. The lumberjacks feature chainsaw carving, axe throwing, wood chopping, one and two-man crosscut sawing, modified chainsawing, and log rolling in a makeshift pool.
Most people don't think of science as "laugh out loud" funny, but if you're hoping to entertain your kids and keep their brains working during the summer heat, then taking in one of Jeff Boyer's shows will fulfill that desire. Jeff Boyer Productions uses scientific theory to wow audiences. If you've never seen a bubble dance, then you shouldn't miss his show. (That's not all that happens.) While he's making the audience laugh, he's sneaking in the theory behind the phenomenon they're witnessing. Learning is cleverly disguised in this show because kids think they're just enjoying a comedy show.
Even though you can wander around and experience everything that's free at the fair, it's hard to resist the "fare at the fair". Some foods and drinks are fair standards, and in many cases, "must-haves". Meal-spoilers such as fried dough, caramel apples, cotton candy and fresh-squeezed lemonade are irresistible. If it's a meal you're looking for, there are plenty of affordable options from which to choose, and they are conveniently spread throughout the grounds so that when you're hungry, you can stop to eat.
What's not free?
Midway rides offer the thrill seekers a few minutes of excitement and an opportunity to test their lung capacity. After all, what would a fair or carnival be without the ambient sounds of screaming? There are also the games where players spend a lot of money to win a prize with a value far less than what they spent attempting to win it. As someone once said, "It's the thrill of the hunt, not the prize, that we crave."
What would a country fair be without tractor pulls, country bands, car thrill shows and a demolition derby? Some of these programs are also free, while others require an entrance fee at the venue.
Kids of all ages find something of interest or entertaining at the fair, but the entertainment isn't what I look forward to the most. I can't leave a fair without eating at least one candied or caramel apple. For my husband, he can't exit the gates without a cup of fresh-squeezed lemonade. Do we need these treats? No, but they remind us of our childhood days of attending local fairs and, as such, we leave feeling satisfied.
Most of us enjoy trips down memory lane occasionally. If you're looking for a "nostalgic fix", go to the fair; it's a worthwhile trip that just might bring out the "kid" in you, too.