The California State Fair, which opens Thursday, attracts more than 800,000 people a year, and a 2010 exit survey found that families with children accounted for 42 percent of fairgoers.
"It's the whole mission of the fair to present and showcase what California is all about, whether it's agriculture, whether it's industry, how we live," said Norb Bartosik, CEO of CalExpo. "What better kind of family fun can you do?"
Between multiple admission fees, rides, parking, food and special events, costs for a family can add up.
On average, Bartosik said, families spend $150 on a full-price visit.
"You just have to be savvy enough to find where the best deal is," he said. "If you do what you need to do, you can afford to come to the fair."
The fair offers all kinds of discounts and prices, but these can be confusing to navigate. So we've done the math and pinpointed the most worthwhile deals. We also calculated the cheapest ways an average-size family can take on the fair and still have fun.
First, keep in mind the most important thing: Plan early and thoroughly. Discount packages, including the Poppy Pak package, end Wednesday. Other deals happen only on certain days of the fair, so it's essential to clear the calendar for one of those days. It also is important to plan the day out beforehand figure out what exhibits to hit when, and factor in show schedules. Procrastination can literally cost you money.
Early bird specials
The fair offers a number of early bird packages and special discounts that are available through Wednesday.
The Poppy Pak ($44.95) and Poppy Pak + Ultimate Coupon Book combo ($47.95) provide the best family-oriented deals; each Poppy Pak includes four general admission tickets, four monorail or carnival ride tickets (each good for one ride) and a parking pass. At full price, all the perks of the Poppy Pak cost $70.
The Ultimate Coupon Book, which costs $5, holds 100 coupons worth at least a 30 percent discount on selected activities, drinks and fair food, such as dill pickles, shaved ice and deluxe chicken wraps.
Early planners also can snag individual advance admission tickets for $2 cheaper than full price. This means: $10 for general admission (ages 13 and up), $8 for senior admission (ages 62 and up), and $6 for ages 5-12. Children 4 and under always have free admission.
These deals are available at the State Fair box office and online but online orders add a $3.50 service charge.
Also, Costco members can buy the State Fair Fun Pak at nine store locations Cal Expo, Citrus Heights, Folsom, Lodi, Rancho Cordova, Roseville, south Sacramento, Stockton and Woodland. The $27.99 package includes two general admission tickets, a parking pass and a coupon for $10 worth of fair food $16 worth of savings.
Plan for discount days
Mark certain days on the calendar for saving money.
All admission tickets (adults and children) cost $6, and unlimited ride wristbands are $15 on Wednesdays, Wells Fargo Saving Days.
Tuesdays are Kids Days, with free admission for children 12 and younger and $1 rides for all.
Tickets cost $8 for adults 62 and over on Fridays before 8 p.m. These tickets cannot be purchased online or in advance.
Food for thought
Minimize food costs by packing meals at home. There are plenty of areas in the fair to hold a nice picnic with the family.
"You can bring a backpack of food, or if you're pushing a stroller, a knapsack, as long as you don't have coolers, (glass) bottles, cans or hard containers," Bartosik said. Just be aware that security at the gate has to check whatever you pack.
Of course, homemade sandwiches might not match up to fair food.
"It's a feeding frenzy at fair time," Bartosik said. "Anything you can eat on a stick. You name it, we have it."
Doing the math for a family of four
We calculated how a family of four with two children younger than 12 can spend a day at the fair for $100.
Here's what we included in our calculation and what it costs without deals or specials savings: admission ($24 for two adults, $16 for two youths); parking ($10); carnival rides at Magical Midway and Kids Park ($1 per ticket, 3-5 tickets per ride); two monorail rides for each family member ($3 each).
How to save
Go on a Tuesday Kids Day kids 12 and younger get in free and rides are $1 each and bring your own food. You will need to buy two adult admission tickets and pay for parking. Get the admission tickets in advance for $20 total and save $4. And 40 rides will cost $40, 8 monorail rides $24. Total cost: $94.
Save another $2 by getting the $28 Costco State Fair Fun Pak, which includes admission and parking plus a $10 food bonus.
And what if one or both children are over 12? It's still possible to do it for $100 if you plan to go on Kids Day and bring food from home. Buy a Poppy Pak, which would cover admission tickets, parking and four rides on the monorail. Pay separately for four more rides on the monorail and for 40 carnival rides. Total cost: $96.95. And if only one child is over 12, you'd have an admission ticket left over.
If you can't schedule a Tuesday, try a Wednesday, with reduced admission ($6) and unlimited ride wristbands ($15). There are two ways to maximize saving on Wednesdays: with or without a Poppy Pak. For either method, you need to get four wristbands for $60.
With the Pak: You still need four monorail tickets, so get those for $12. Total cost: $116.95.
Without the Pak: Buy reduced-price admission tickets at the door. Add the price of parking and two monorail rides each. Total cost: $118 with two children over 4, $112 with one child over 4, $106 if neither child is over 4.
Wednesdays won't work either? The fair can cost under $200. Combine a Poppy Pak with four unlimited ride wristbands ($28 each) and 4 additional monorail rides. Total cost: $174.95; $184.20 with online service fee for Pak and wristbands).
This fun is free
Other than rides, the fair provides oodles of other entertainment. Some of it is constant, with certain shows happening at a number of set times per day and exhibits that last through the duration of the fair. Some other attractions only happen on specific days for example, evening concerts feature different artists who don't repeat performances.
And most of these attractions are free with fair admission, with exceptions such as the demolition derby and reserved seating for concerts.
Among the free activities are several new exhibits.
"The most popular will be the Wizard's Challenge," said Bartosik. "And the Birds in Paradise will be lots of fun."
Wizard's Challenge, a new interactive attraction, engages attendees in "magical" science activities. They can find out their grip strength by grabbing a dragon's tail and see a Rube Goldberg contraption. There also are "magical" morphing mirrors and "enchanting" light-beam music.
Three Magic of Science shows which invite volunteers to the stage occur daily.
Wizard's Challenge, located at the center of the fair, is in an air-conditioned tent, perfect to visit at midday.
And Birds in Paradise, hosted by the State Fair Program, features exotic birds, including macaws, finches and peacocks, and exotic plants, including cocoa, vanilla orchids, and banana trees. Attendees can walk through the "jungle" and learn about the colorful life forms. And eager beavers who get there before supplies run out will receive free packs of California poppy seeds.
A few other attractions to check out:
The time-tested, fan-favorite hypnotist show is back. Suzy Haner has performed at the State Fair for the past few years, and every day at 5, 7 and 9 p.m., she will put volunteers under her spell and show off her hypnotic skills on the PG&E Center Stage.
Toytopia 2.0, upgraded from last year's Toytopia, exhibits classic toys, including the world's largest Etch-a-Sketch. It also has a retro game arcade and a Legos center.
Another new attraction, Studio 102, is available only July 18 and 25 from 6 to 9 p.m. in the Xtreme Zone. Attendees can meet local artists, including break dancers, hoppers and radio personalities.
And don't forget the classic fair exhibits, such cow milking and the Ag Ventureland and Farmyard Babies petting zoo.
"There's exhibits for kids to learn from. We like to call it 'edutainment,' " Bartosik said. "We have a joke about the fair: It's where people come from the city to learn that chocolate milk doesn't come from brown cows."