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Locals come surging back to reopened Orange County Fair after nearly 2-year hiatus

Ticket holders make their way through the main entrance during opening day on Friday of the OC Fair in Costa Mesa.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

Hours before the gates rolled open Friday morning, Orange County residents awoke with an undeniable feeling of anticipation — after nearly two years and the long arc of a global pandemic, the Orange County Fair was finally back in town.

By 10 a.m., the clowns were makeup ready. Ponies queued in a ring, awaiting the light burden of child riders. Turkey legs were turned with loving care. Farm animals nestled in beds of fresh hay. All that was missing were the people.

Outside the gates, a small crowd of fairgoers who’d ordered their tickets online in advance (one of several coronavirus precautions adopted this year in consultation with the Orange County Health Care Agency) lined up to get a first crack at the spectacle.

“We woke up and realized we were way too early, so we lingered around the house,” said Orange resident Bethany Tumbleson, who came with husband Mike, 11-year-old son Dylan and daughter Emma, 9. “Normally, the line is around the corner, but it’s not like that today.”

Fair clown, Katie, on Friday welcomes a young fairgoer with a high five on opening day of the O.C. Fair in Costa Mesa.
Fair clown, Katie, welcomes a young fairgoer with a high five at the main entrance during opening day on Friday of the O.C. Fair in Costa Mesa.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

That was by design, according to fair organizers, who’ve capped daily attendance at 45,000 to provide guests room to maintain safe distances. Mask-wearing, urged for unvaccinated visitors while indoors, will be left to an honor code system.

Two queues down, mom Brittany Hollar stood with 9-year-old-son Brady after having dropped off older son Jameson at the fairgrounds to perform as part of a youth act. As with the Tumblesons, Friday morning found the Los Alamitos family chomping at the bit.

“We got our tickets like three weeks ago, and we woke up this morning at 7:15,” Hollar said. “Once we dropped off Jameson, we just drove around in circles until the parking lots opened up at 9:15.”

With a brief countdown and a welcoming call, the gates swung open. It was “Time for Fun,” a fitting theme for this year’s event, which runs through Aug. 15. Inside, OC Fair & Event Center Chief Executive Michele Richards passed out multicolored paper fans to keep fairgoers cool.

Fair foodies Olivia the Orange and Strawberry Jan pose for a photo Friday on opening day of the O.C. Fair in Costa Mesa.
Fair foodies Olivia the Orange and Strawberry Jan pose for a photo during opening day on Friday of the O.C. Fair in Costa Mesa.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

Like guests, she too, was filled with excitement for the day ahead.

“I woke up at 3 o’ clock this morning — I couldn’t sleep,” Richards said, chagrined that the cancellation of the 2020 O.C. Fair, the first since World War II, happened on her watch.

“It’s almost like I’ve been holding my breath for the last 15 months,” she continued. “Now, it’s like we’re exhaling today, in the best and happiest way.”

Among the first throngs of people to rush headlong into the waiting fairgrounds were Alyssa Sanchez, her new husband, Christian, and her two sisters Nadine and Victoria Alvarado.

They made the trek from Los Angeles because the L.A. County Fair was canceled this year and the family wanted to get in one last hurrah before the newlyweds moved out of state.

Members of the Dragon Knights perform Friday on opening day of the O.C. Fair in Costa Mesa.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

“We’re moving to Texas next week, so we wanted to see a California fair one more time with my sisters,” Alyssa Sanchez said outside the fairgrounds’ Centennial Farm.

Having applied coats of sunscreen, the group went to look at the farm animals before scoping out some deep-fried Oreos and checking in on the schedule for the “All-Alaskan Racing Pigs,” a favorite attraction.

Inside Centennial Farms, small children posed for pictures with Patches, a behemoth black and white ox in the process of having his white spots brightened with “Yellow Out” shampoo with some help from volunteer David Hauk, who explained to visitors oxen are simply bulls who take up the yoke.

Missing the O.C. Fair in 2020 was not only difficult for the countless families who’ve attended as long as their memories can reach, but for the many volunteers who work on the fairgrounds as well.

A member of the Dragon Knights smiles for a photo Friday on opening of the O.C. Fair in Costa Mesa.
A member of the Dragon Knights smiles for a photo during opening day on Friday of the OC Fair in Costa Mesa.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

Just ask Fountain Valley resident Cheri Wall. The retiree started volunteering with husband Buck, who passed before the pandemic, to have something to do. That was 18 years ago.

“When I came back to the orientation last week, I just broke into tears,” she said. “It was like seeing family.”

For Costa Mesa residents Diane McCardle and Donna Yelich — two sisters who grew up in town and have faithfully attended for nearly a half-century — the fair is all about family.

“We always, always, always come on the first day,” McCardle said. “We usually come once a week, bring the grandkids, ride the rides, see everything. We love everything about it — the pig races, the food, everything.”

Friday morning found the duo peering over table setting displays inside the Anaheim Building, where lavishly themed displays and clever concept dinner menus had them recollecting over the many competitions they and other family members had entered over the years.

Fair clown, VeeKay, poses for photos with fairgoers Friday near the main entrance of the O.C. Fair in Costa Mesa.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

McCardle said it’s become a family tradition that has so far spanned four generations.

“Our mother, she entered artwork,” she recalled. “My son, who’s in his early 50s now, entered multiple times in all different areas, and his three children and his wife have all entered.”

“I did a table setting, it must have been 20 years ago,” Yelich chimed in. “I got first place for that, and I still have the centerpiece.”

Torrance resident Rich Hung, who grew up in Huntington Beach and attended the fair as a child, saw Friday an opportunity to create new family traditions with wife Kristen and 2-year-old daughter Aubrey, a first timer.

“My dad brought me to the O.C. Fair when I was her age,” he said. “I really wanted to bring her here, so when I heard it was opening, we jumped right on it.”

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