Family Feel, Plus the Wow Factor


Rhonda Barth has visited the Orange County Fair every summer for as long as she's lived in Costa Mesa--which is all her life.

When she was 6, she savored sticky cotton candy, majestic Clydesdale horses and blaring music. Now, at 34, she brings son Craig and daughter Tori to enjoy the same fair staples.

But no matter how much of the fair stays the same, it's the slight yearly variations that keep Barth coming back.

Standing in line to pick up her free tickets--which Barth gets as compensation for any disruptions the fair causes in her nearby neighborhood--she noted: "There's always something different."

Last year's fair, the first one operating under the expanded dates, had a total attendance of 808,810. Officials said it's impossible to forecast how many people will visit this year, but added that fears over a weakening economy could affect attendance.

But when the fair opens Friday, there will be some outsized--and different--attractions to help draw crowds, fair officials said. As in a giant Ferris wheel, an eight-lane super slide and an interactive "I Love Lucy" exhibit.

"There's a different feel this year," said fair General Manager Becky Bailey-Findley. "It's about trying new things."

The biggest hype surrounds the fair's biggest ride, La Grande Wheel. The world's largest traveling Ferris wheel looms 15 stories high. The ride is so large, it took three weeks to assemble. And it is so heavy, at 200 metric tons, it requires a steel-reinforced pad beneath it to keep it from sinking.

In addition to the rides--57 total--fair-goers can wander through more than 12,000 exhibits: everything from the traditional jams, quilts and cakes to the quirkier turtle collectibles, table settings and orange crate labels (to match the fair's "Twist & Shout" citrus-and-sun theme).

It's that quaint character of the fair that's really its biggest attraction, said fair official Ruby Lau. That hometown family feel has permeated the fair for more than a century.

And it's what keeps bringing Barth back. Over the years, she's taken her mother and sisters to the rodeo. Her children to the petting zoo. And taken in an evening concert with her husband.

"Then one day I'll ditch my family and go with my girlfriends," she said. "You can't do everything one time."

This year's edition starts Friday and runs through July 29 at the Orange County Fairgrounds, 88 Fair Drive, Costa Mesa. Hours: noon-midnight, Monday-Wednesday; 10 a.m.-midnight, Thursday-Sunday. Admission: $7 for adults, $6 for seniors (55 and older), $3 for children (6-12 years old), and free for those 5 and younger. Information: (714) 708-FAIR.


Big, but Not the Biggest

This year's Orange County Fair Ferris wheel is larger than last year's but smaller than the one at California Adventure in Anaheim. The fair opens Friday and runs through July 29.


Orange County Fair La Grande Wheel 150 ft.

Gondolas: 36

Passengers: 216


California Adventure's Sun Wheel 168 ft.

Gondolas: 24

Passengers: 144


2000 O.C. Fair Ferris wheel 110 ft.

Gondolas: 24

Passengers: 96

Source: Orange County Fair

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