In this re-created western town, children can try on costumes at Rosie's Dress Shop, or they can stand behind the cash register at the General Store and ring up a sale. And, if they dare, they can mosey on down to the jail and venture behind the bars.
No, this isn't Disneyland. It's the Ventura County Fair, which runs through Aug. 25. And unbelievably, the western storefronts are part of an underwater fantasy world in the Youth Building.
Colorfully painted fish hang from the ceiling while blue ribbons strung high over it all denote the ocean's surface. In another turn of fantasy, a castle-like entrance greets visitors.
It's the creation of Judy Nigh, superintendent of the Youth Building the past four years, and her husband, Larry, a mechanic who annually devotes his summer vacation to fair construction projects.
"It's an act of love," said Judy Nigh, who supervised the assembling of the western facades last week from a wheelchair. She tore the cartilage in both knees but postponed surgery until after the fair.
The fantasy set shares space in the Youth Building with hundreds of contest entries from kids who submit everything from decorated Christmas trees to poetry.
Judy Nigh designed the western town to give children some hands-on activities to go with viewing of an endless display of kids' handiwork. Children are bombarded daily with admonitions not to touch things, she said, but here in her western world it's the opposite.
"They can feel, touch and do," she said.
The little town also features a doctor's office where they can listen to their hearts beating, a library where a storyteller will be posted, a post office and a sheriff's office. An aquarium with real fish is set up.
In the town's center, kids can decorate a square for a quilt, build a sandcastle, paint and color and busy themselves with other craft activities.
For the Nighs, the hustle and stress of preparing for the fair aren't work at all.
"We love what we're doing," said Judy Nigh, a substitute teacher for a Head Start program. "I like children."
The Nighs have three grown daughters and three grandchildren. They moved from Ventura to Maricopa 12 years ago. They were Ventura County Fair veterans back then, with one of their daughters involved in 4-H projects.
Judy Nigh is a creative whiz. From her grandmother, she learned to sew without patterns. For the western town, she designed and created several animated stuffed animals that she assembled from "old junk laying around."
Preparing for the fair's centerpiece is a year-round task.
"We talk about it all year," she said. Using her design, her husband constructed the western storefronts in modular sections in their back yard. "Then we take a wonderful vacation by the beach doing what we love."
The Youth Building has other doings to amaze kids throughout the fair's duration, starting with the doughnut-eating contest today. Then watch for more contests: paper airplane making, dessert making for parents and children, tomato stuffing, balloon shaving, foot painting, cookie decorating and making clothes from newspaper.
That's not all the fair offers for young children. Over at the Children's Barnyard, kids will see a collection of farm animals--cows, pigs, rabbits, goats, turkeys, pheasants and geese. Most are mothers and babies, and many were raised by 4-H kids.
The Children's Dell, near the entrance, is another must. There you will find more contests for kids: lemon juice drinking, tricycle pull, pie eating and egg toss. Clowns, balloon sculptors, puppeteers and other musical entertainers perform daily.
Here is a rundown on what else parents need to know about the fair.
* Youth Day is Friday, when fair admission is free for kids 12 and under. Otherwise, admission for adults is $6, $3 for children 6 to 12 and free for children 5 and under. On-site parking is $3.
* If your child is more interested in carnival rides than the lemon meringue pie bake-off, you can buy him a $6 wristband that entitles him to unlimited rides Monday through Thursday, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. or 5 p.m. to 11 p.m.
* Strollers may be rented just inside the main gate. And if you become separated from your child in the crowd of fair-goers, don't panic. Lost children will be cared for by the Salvation Army at a booth across from the Gem and Mineral Building.
* WHERE AND WHEN
The Ventura County Fair runs now through Aug. 25 in Ventura at Harbor Boulevard and Figueroa Street. Fairgrounds are open 11 a.m. to midnight daily. Free shuttles operate every half-hour from Ventura High School, County Government Center and Buenaventura Plaza Shopping Center.