It's easy to be attracted to the wackier side of the Mountain State Fair. After all, it's not every day that you can cheer racing porkers, thrill to a high-flying circus act, get your Johnny Depp on in a full-sized swinging pirate ship and cram your pie hole full of all the emu burgers you can eat.
But the real allure for this year's fair, which opens Friday, Sept. 11, could be a much more sober fact: In a limping economy, the midway offers a cheap way for families to escape everyday worries and have some wholesome fun.
"I think a lot of folks are interested in taking advantage of a reasonably priced entertainment venue" that serves up the fried food, heart-stopping rides and down-home atmosphere that only a fair can provide, says fair spokesman Jim Knight.
A ticket costs $5, with ride tickets, country music concerts, beckoning midway games and those giant turkey legs adding to the bill. But there are plenty of special offers, notes Knight, and the fair offers plenty of free on-site entertainment that ranges from arts and crafts displays, livestock exhibitions and plain old people-watching.
Advance ticket sales online are up about 20 percent from last year, according to Knight, and that doesn't take into account tickets sold through Ingles grocery stores, the WNC Farmers Market and the the WNC Agricultural Center, site of the annual event. The goal of the state-operated fair is to pull in more than 200,000 visitors over the course of the 10-day run.
Average attendance over the last five years has been 171,290 visitors, with a couple of notable circumstances that kept some people away. In 2004, nasty weather from the remnants of Hurricane Ivan doused the fair and hurt attendance. Then last year, a gas shortage cut into attendance.
"We feel like the fair has a tremendous chance to grow," says Knight.
The return of a chair-lift ride and the addition of two new buildings on the agricultural center grounds may push the fair toward that end.
The new buildings will provide permanent new venues for key fair attractions — the juried crafts, as well as the competitive entries. The Mountain Heritage Center, a 4,600-square-foot log building, and a new exposition center will put exhibits under a roof and offer amenities including rest rooms, Knight says. All of those exhibits had previously been displayed under tents and in the dusty Davis Arena.
There are also some parking improvements this year, Knight notes, and an Asheville city bus runs to the fairgrounds, making this year's fair more accessible than ever.
Whether folks come for the Spam cooking contest, to pet a llama or just to stroll the fairgrounds, Knight hopes people come out for some affordable fun.
"We feel like we're going to have a good year," he says. "We want folks to come out and enjoy the fair as a family."
This year's fair offers a great musical lineup if you like country and bluegrass. Of special local interest? The Thursday, Sept. 17, bluegrass jam session featuring local pickers and fiddlers who would normally play at an Asheville institution known as Mrs. Hyatt's Operahouse. Nelia Hyatt's been hosting those weekly gatherings at her West Asheville home since the 1950s. The fair invited Hyatt to host the session on the fair's Hyatt stage; everyone's encouraged to come out and join in.
McGough Arena hosts the fair's four concerts. Shows are $5 (on top of the $5 fair admission). Jake Owen (country-rock) will play Sept. 15; Randy Houser (country-rock) on Sept. 16; 33 Miles (Christian pop) on Sept. 17 and The Travelin McCourys (bluegrass — these guys were last in town for Warren Haynes' Christmas Jam) with the legendary Tony Rice on Sept. 20. In addition to the concerts, local bands will compete each night in the Mountain Music Competition for the privilege of opening for the McCourys. A few years ago, the Steep Canyon Rangers won that competition — they're now bona fide bluegrass heroes.
Why bother with the fair if you can't brag that you took on the Cyclops or the Tornado and still kept your corn dog down? This year's midway operator, Drew Expositions, will bring in about 40 rides, several of which are larger than previous midway operators. The chair lift, a cable-operated ride that resembles the lifts you find at a ski slope, will span about half the grounds of the agricultural center complex, promising a unique view of the festivities.
If you're a ride junkie, you'll need to know that Sept. 16 is Ingles Day. Bring in four cans of Laura Lynn-brand food and get free fair admission. The food will be donated to MANNA Food Bank. On Sept. 11, students in grades K-12 get in free until 6 p.m. And Sept. 18 is Senior Day, with free admission for anyone 65 and over all day.
Also, on the first Monday and Thursday of the fair's run, gates will open at 4 p.m. and $18 gets you unlimited rides. On the second Friday of the fair, dubbed Friday Night Stampede, folks can pay $18 for unlimited rides from 9 p.m. until 1 a.m. Those hours are targeting everyone looking for some fun after local high school football games.
Tickets and hours
Save some cash by purchasing advance tickets. The early sales are open through Sept. 10, with tickets available at the WNC Agricultural Center, the WNC Farmers Market and local Ingles stores.
A sheet of 12 ride coupons will cost $12, and rides can cost one or more tickets. The advance price for a sheet to ride tickets is $6. For fair admission, you can knock $1 off the regular $5 entrance fee for an adult by buying early. The regular price for tickets for children ages 6 to 12 and seniors is $2, but it drops to $1.50 if you buy early. Children under age 5 get in free.
The fair runs Friday, Sept. 11, through Sunday, Sept. 20.
Mondays through Thursdays: Gates open at 3 p.m. Rides start at 4 p.m. Buildings close at 10 p.m. Rides close at 11 p.m.
Fridays, Saturdays: Gates open at 9 a.m. Rides start at 10 a.m. Buildings close at 10 p.m. Rides close at midnight, except for Friday, Sept. 18, when they stay open until 1 a.m.
Sunday: Gates at 9 a.m. Rides start at 10 a.m. Buildings close at 10 p.m. Rides at 11 p.m., except for Sunday, Sept. 20, when they close at 10 p.m.
WNC.Agricultural Center, 1301 Fanning Bridge Road in Fletcher. Take I-26 to exit 40. The fairgrounds are across the road from the Asheville Regional Airport.
On the Web
Check out the N.C. Mountain State Fair's blog at http://mountainfair.blogspot.com/. The main Web site is www.ncagr.gov/markets/fairs/mtnfair/. The fair also has a Facebook page and at least one promotional video up on YouTube.