Visitors to the 2014 California State Fair, which runs Friday through July 27, will likely come out to Cal Expo for the same reasons that people always have: interesting exhibits, cool rides and fried food.
In an effort to draw new visitors and impress returning ones, however, fair planners have rolled out dozens of changes.
Some, such as the demonstration kitchen’s move to a building near the fair’s Farm, are obvious. Others, such as more shade across walkways, are subtle. Most, such as chainsaw-carving demonstrations and a cookoff of military MREs – better known as Meals, Ready to Eat – constitute the unexpectedly intriguing discoveries that make the State Fair truly special.
Lara Popyack, the fair’s media director, said the goal of the changes is to ensure this year’s fair lives up to its theme: “It’s the best!”
With that in mind, here’s a list of 10 must-see-and-do things that we think represent some of the best of “the best.”
•Online fair planning
Want to plan your day at the fair down to the last deep-fried Twinkie? There’s an online tool for that.
Make an account on the California State Fair website ( castatefair.org) and browse through each day’s events, exhibits and special activities. Add items to a schedule you can import to your phone’s iCal or Google Calendar for easy reference at the fair.
You can also search all activities in a certain category, such as animals or entertainment, to figure out when and where your fair favorites are being offered.
Though the program is not available for download, the tool is mobile-compatible, so you can access the site on your phone anywhere you go.
The 1.5-acre California Forestry Center has been open since 1971, but this is the first year in recent memory that fairgoers can experience a chainsaw carving demonstration before strolling through a grove of more than 40 native species.
The carver will work on a unique piece of wood art in a show designed to bring some additional excitement to the forest.
“We have this educational exhibit filled with information that people should really be learning about California forests, but a lot of time that needs to be coupled with entertainment so people can learn all the facts and figures as they’re having a good time,” said Carrie Wright, program director.
Additionally, attendees can take home free seedlings to start their own miniature California forests.
•3, 5 and 7 p.m. everyday: Freestyle motocross in half-drained lagoon
Both as a concession to the drought and as a space-saving measure, half of the lagoon at Cal Expo has been drained to host the free daily motocross shows.
Big-name athletes, DJs and a tricks-explaining emcee promise to provide an “up-close and personal” extreme riding experience for vicarious thrill-seekers and adrenaline junkies.
“Whether you’re 5 years old or 80, when you see motorcycles flying 30 feet up in the air, doing tricks and back flips, it’s almost impossible not be thrilled by it,” said Jeff Tilton, owner of TNT Action Sports, the company that has supplied motorcyclists to the fair for 12 years.
After each show, riders will sign autographs and talk with fans. This year, four-time X Games gold medalist Mike Mason will be performing in the lagoon, so attending one of the motocross events could be your chance to meet a champion.
•Everyday: “Dream Big: Exploring Your Future,” children’s area
There’s more than cotton candy and roller coasters when it comes to kids activities at the fair.
The new Dream Big exhibit, aimed at kids under 10, showcases career options in the Golden State, with a particular emphasis on science, technology, engineering and math (or STEM) fields where jobs abound.
“We’re trying to figure out how to introduce a 2-year-old to wanting to become a biomedical engineer,” said Alison Wells, youth program coordinator.
Kids also can explore an outer-space-themed play area. In addition, the kids zone offers daily story time, an interactive improv theater activity, a healthy-snack shop and a lounge for moms and infants.
•8 p.m. everyday: Toyota Concert Series
Classic rock fans rejoice: This year’s Toyota Concert Series will bring stars from ’70s and ’80s to the Golden 1 Stage.
John Kay & Steppenwolf open the series tonight. On July 18, Joan Jett & The Blackhearts promise to prove women have always known how to rock. Pat Benatar, performing with Neil Giraldo on July 22, will deliver more evidence.
Queen Nation, a Queen tribute band, will appear July 19, and folk-rock duo America will take the stage July 20.
The actual Bon Jovi isn’t on the bill, but don’t despair, children of the 1980s – Blaze of Glory: The Bon Jovi Experience will close the series July 27 with rousing covers of “Livin’ on a Prayer” and “You Give Love a Bad Name,” among other hits.
All concerts are free, but fans can purchase special seating for an additional cost.
•10 a.m. Sunday: World Cup Final viewing party
Leave the lonely living-room couch to watch the final round of the 2014 FIFA World Cup with several thousand of your closest friends.
The USA won’t be playing in the live-broadcast match, but players from the Sacramento Republic FC will be on hand to chat about the beautiful game and sign autographs before the action starts at noon (the pre-game show starts at 10 a.m.).
“As soccer becomes more and more popular here in America and locally due to the excitement surrounding Sacramento Republic, we decided to have a big viewing party here at the fair,” said Jennifer Castleberry, director of marketing.
News10 anchors will offer contests and prize giveaways throughout the day. Entrance to the game, shown at the Golden 1 Stage area at Cal Expo, is free with fair admission.
•5 to 8 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday: “Wheel of Fortune” auditions
For the first time, this year’s State Fair offers attendees a shot at 15 minutes of fame and “Fortune.”
Making its only Sacramento stop, the “Wheelmobile” will be parked near the Golden 1 Stage for two days of auditions.
Fairgoers can enter a lottery for the chance to audition. At 5 p.m., 6:30 p.m. and 8 p.m., people chosen from the lottery will participate in a show that includes interviews and game play on the stage. Each show lasts an hour.
Successful candidates (“good game players who are energetic, enthusiastic and fun,” according to a Wheel of Fortune press release) will win an invitation to a final audition (time and location to be determined) – and maybe the chance to appear on America’s longest-running game show.
• 11:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Thursday: MRE cookoffs
Meals, Ready to Eat, the prepackaged food consumed by soldiers in war zones, might be the antithesis of standard fair fare.
The MREs will make their unlikely fair debut at the Save Mart Supermarkets California Kitchen, which will showcase cooking demonstrations and food tastings daily during the fair.
On Military Appreciation Day, fairgoers can watch American military personnel, armed only with a few extra ingredients selected from the fair’s Farm, battle to prepare the tastiest MRE.
During the event, soldiers will talk with the audience about some of the hardships – culinary and otherwise – that modern military personnel experience.
“It’s not just about a cookoff,” Wright said. “It’s to bring awareness to what our military goes through.”
Given that troops have nicknamed these utilitarian comestibles “Meals, Rejected by Everyone,” the fight could be fierce.
•3 to 6 p.m July 19: Brewer’s Festival
Beer enthusiasts shouldn’t miss this opportunity to sample some of California’s best microbrew beers at what Greg Kinder, deputy manager of fair programs, calls “the least expensive, best brewers festival ever to be found.”
A wristband entitles the bearer to 10 samples of award-winning beers from the California State Fair Commercial Craft Brew competition.
Samples, chosen from nearly 50 micro-brews offered, will be served in a 5-ounce mug that participants can take home as a souvenir.
The festival will be held on the racetrack grass, where beer tasters can also watch horse racing and participate in a complimentary seminar on the art of betting on the ponies.
Tickets for wristbands are $15 when purchased in advance; $20 the day of the fair. Kinder said tickets are selling quickly, so beer aficionados should consider buying now.
•7 p.m. July 20: Demolition derby
The ultimate in survival of the mechanized fittest: Watch cars crash into each other until only one is left moving.
According to organizers, drivers will be local “VIPs” with no demolition derby experience.
John Borba, owner of WGAS Motor Sports (which is handling the derby), said inexperienced derby drivers make for a more entertaining show.
“If you’re a rookie, you don’t know how to kill a car, so they just kind of run into each other,” Borba said. “It’s a lot more fun and it lasts a lot longer.”
The drivers’ identities will be announced shortly before the derby.
Admission is $5, which State Fair deputy manager Paul Gillingham noted is likely cheaper than spending an hour at the carnival.
And the unique excitement of demolition derby can’t be found anywhere else at the fair.
“Certain people just love to see things run into each other, crash and burn,” Gillingham said.