Summer may have arrived on June 20, but here in Orange County it sees its official start on Friday with the return of the Orange County Fair.
Open Wednesday through Sunday, the fair's 2012 theme is "Home Sweet Home," heavy on the "Sweet." Home cooking is the topic for a variety of celebrity chef shows, including the Food Network's Robert Irvine at 1 p.m. July 26 and "Top Chef" fan favorite Fabio Viviani at 1 p.m. Aug. 2 in the Hangar, the fair's newest stage. Entry is free with fair admission.
A "Home Sweet Home" highlight is Chocolate Unwrapped, a new exhibit in the Exhibit Promenade that teaches and demonstrates how chocolate is made.
The fair offers much more than just the midway and rows of buskers; regular entertainment is planned at the Hangar, the Action Sports Arena and the Pacific Amphitheatre, with shows available either with fair admission or with additional ticket purchase.
Daily free-with-admission entertainment includes the Peking Acrobats, the All-Alaskan Racing Pigs and the Dragon Knights. Karaoke Rockstarz on the Meadows Stage offers everyone the chance to perform with a live band in front of an audience at 8 p.m. nightly, while the Action Sports Stage promises new high-adrenaline antics each weekend.
Enjoy Yarn Bombing Day on July 15, when Fair Square becomes a yarn art extravaganza. Pogopalooza returns from July 26 to 28, with attempts to achieve pogo stick world records in Fair Square.
Got Girl Scouts? Be sure to commemorate the organization's 100th anniversary July 27 with a special event. The Budweiser Clydesdales will be on hand from Aug. 1 to 12, and Oasis Camel Dairy will give milking demonstrations on the same days.
The always-popular Centennial Farm offers the chance for families to explore four acres of a demonstration farm, where they can get up close and personal with baby animals and livestock, view crops growing, and check out competitions for the biggest fruits and vegetables.
As always, a variety of special admission promotions is planned.
Get in free from noon to 1 p.m. on opening day. Kids ages 12 and under get in free on Thursdays. Seniors ages 60 and up get $2 off admission and free Ferris wheel and merry-go-round rides on Fridays. Those who arrive between 10 and 11 a.m. Saturdays and Sundays will receive $2 off admission.
Get in free from noon to 4 p.m. Wednesdays with the following donations: five nonperishable food items on July 18; one new children's book or three gently used children's books on July 25; five gently used clothing items on Aug. 1; or one new school supply item valued at $5 or more on Aug. 8.
On Wednesdays and Thursdays, get $30 unlimited carnival ride wristbands that also are valid for two free games. The wristbands will be sold until 5 p.m. and will be valid until 8 p.m.
Fridays also offer $2 rides and $2 games, valid until 4 p.m.
Free eating contests for kids begin at 6:30 p.m. daily at the Fun Zone Tent, with registration beginning at 6 p.m. Knott's Berry Farm will host an all-ages pie-eating contest in the Exhibit Promenade; register for it beginning at 6:30 p.m.
Register online each Wednesday for that Saturday's Culinary Arts Special Contests in categories like best cookie, best cupcake, best chili and best hometown dish. Bring your dish on Saturday and have it be judged by fairgoers.
Work off that food competition at the fourth annual Fun Run, slated for 7:30 a.m. Aug. 5. The Centennial Farm Pancake Breakfast Fundraiser will run that morning from 6:30 to 9:30 a.m. for $5, if reserved online. Enter through the Blue Gate.
Take a rain check from the office (or plan a long lunch) from noon to 4 p.m. Fridays, when vendors will offer $2 fun-sized samples of favorite fair food like funnel cake, tri-tip, lemonade, cinnamon rolls, corn dogs, gelato, tacos, cotton candy and more.
Prefer food trucks to fair fare? They'll be on hand from noon to 10 p.m. Thursdays inside the gates; purchase all your favorites with fair admission. Live food truck chef competitions are scheduled for July 19 and 28, and amateur chefs will compete against professional chefs on Aug. 2 and 9.
At the food booths, keep an eye out this year for the Big Rib at Biggy's Meat Market — a two-pound beef rib on a 17-inch bone, replete with its own 18-inch doggie bag.
For the fair food that is more a dare than a delicacy, keep an eye out for the famous Chicken Charlie's booths throughout the grounds. New offerings this year include deep-fried cereal, deep-fried peanut butter and jelly, deep-fried Spam, and deep-fried pineapple.
You'll also be able to enjoy the usual tidbits like deep-fried butter (yes, seriously), deep-fried Kool-Aid (ditto), deep-fried Twinkies and Oreos, and the now-classic favorite Krispy Kreme Sandwich, a fried chicken patty with the chain's notoriously sugary doughnuts standing in for buns.
But take it from us: the chocolate-covered bacon is the real deal. When prepared well, it's the perfect amalgam of salty, sweet and savory. Pop by the Bacon A-Fair stands for more bacon fun, like bacon-wrapped turkey legs or beer-battered, deep-fried, bacon-wrapped hot dogs.
Can't get enough of that pork? Be sure to check out the Pig Cam on the ocfair.com website, where you can delight to your heart's content of live porcine antics.
If You Go
What: O.C. Fair
When: July 13 to Aug. 12; noon to midnight Wednesday through Friday and 10 a.m. to midnight Saturdays and Sundays.
Where: O.C. Fair & Event Center, 88 Fair Drive, Costa Mesa
Cost: General $11; seniors 60+ $8; children 6 to 12 $6; children 5 and under free
Information: (714) 708-1500 or ocfair.com