State Fair

Marking 50th edition at Cal Expo, State Fair still shows Disney influence

California State Fair at Cal Expo in Sacramento in 1978.
California State Fair at Cal Expo in Sacramento in 1978. The Sacramento Bee

Monorails, fountain-filled reflection pools, futuristic architecture – it’s enough to make visitors feel like they’ve been transported somewhere else.

That some place could be Disneyland – or Sacramento.

For half a century, the California State Fair has called Cal Expo home. Many of its iconic features date back to its original opening, and some Magic Kingdom inspiration.

“People don’t realize that when this place was originally designed, (the state) asked Walt Disney to help,” explained Rick Pickering, CEO of Cal Expo and the State Fair. “That’s why we have a monorail.”

Back in the early 1960s, Disneyland was practically brand new. With its sparkling Tomorrowland, the Anaheim theme park represented the cutting edge of California “imagineering.”

Then-Gov. Pat Brown, who gets credit for pushing Cal Expo’s creation, signed the 1962 bill that brought the State Fair to its current location. It took almost six years for the new fairgrounds to be completed. Following Brown in office, Gov. Ronald Reagan formally dedicated Cal Expo on July 1, 1968.

“Cal Expo has always celebrated the best and brightest of California with an eye on a prosperous future,” Pickering said. “Fruits and vegetables, technology, Hollywood; the State Fair ties all those things together. It’s what makes us uniquely Californian.”

During the 2017 State Fair’s 17-day run, about 700,000 patrons are expected to join Cal Expo’s golden anniversary party.

“With our 50th birthday, our theme is ‘Back to the Future,’ ” Pickering said.

Instead of focusing solely on Cal Expo’s 1960s origins, that theme makes connections between then, now and tomorrow.

Cal Expo offers plenty of room to explore those themes. Its fairgrounds cover about 800 acres, with more than half its site part of the naturalized American River Parkway. About 380 acres are developed, including the one-mile race track, soccer stadium and 14,000 parking spaces.

To celebrates its 50th edition at Cal Expo, the State Fair commissioned a commemorative poster featuring Cal Expo landmarks with ties to its Disneyesque birth. Those include the monorail, of course, plus the skyway, exposition buildings and water tower. Also around since the beginning are the thoroughbred racetrack, oversized Ferris wheel and agricultural exhibitions.

“We’ve always presented the best of California agriculture and technology,” Pickering said. “When the State Fair began in 1854, it was designed to promote the business interests of people of California. The top interest? Feed people. During the Gold Rush, California’s population tripled in a single year. The fair focused on helping teach people to feed themselves. That included showcasing the best ideas through competition.”

Agriculture still takes center stage at Cal Expo with contests honoring the best wine, beer, cheese and olive oil. That’s only fitting, Pickering noted, since California is the nation’s No. 1 ag state, producing more than $47 billion annually in crops. During the fair, patrons can sample many of these blue ribbon (or gold medal) winners.

This year, judges sipped and tasted their way through more than 4,000 entries. Among the top winners of 2017: Sonoma Valley’s Imagery Estate Winery as Golden State Winery of the Year, and Los Gatos’ Loma Brewing Company as Commercial Brewery of the Year.

In the rapidly growing olive oil competition, Bondolio extra virgin and Calivirgin Lusty Lemon won Best of Show. Among commercial cheese makers, Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Company’s Bay Blue and Pennyroyal Farm’s Reserve Boont Corners earned top honors.

Food at this State Fair always goes way beyond corn dogs as patrons are invited to sample medal-winning wines, olive oils, cheeses and more.

“As you savor these award-winning products, remember that you are enjoying the richness of the Golden State,” Pickering said, “its pristine water, fertile soils, abundant sunshine, rich technology, creative spirit and the collective work of those who call California home.”

Some other highlights from the 2017 State Fair:

▪ The Wine Garden. Relax in the expanded Wine Garden while sampling the best of California. Shaded next to the California Building, the Wine Garden has doubled in size and now features a “Farm to Glass” exhibition, retelling the birth of the state’s wine industry as well as other beverage back stories.

▪ Farm workers get their due. “The Best of California … Celebrating Farm Workers’ Rich Contributions to Food and Agriculture” is a special exhibition in the California Building, focusing on the lives and work of California’s 400,000 farm laborers.

▪ Farm-fresh cooking. At The Farm’s display kitchen, State Fair Chef Keith Breedlove will demonstrate cooking with garden-fresh produce at 1 p.m. daily as he shows how the farm feeds the kitchen in the Farm-to-Fork capital.

▪ Time capsules, then and now. For another display in the California Building, Cal Expo opened the memento box sealed in 1968. At this fair, a second time capsule will be filled, not to be opened until 2067.

▪ Live thoroughbred horse racing. The grandstand (including the refreshingly cool air-conditioned clubhouse) features fan fun Thursdays through Sundays. Highlighting the meet is the $50,000 Governor’s Handicap on July 22. In all, 11 days of racing.

▪ Catch a concert. The 2017 State Fair concert schedule opens with Sheila E. (Friday, July 14) and wraps up with Melissa Etheridge (July 30). Among the chart toppers are guitarist Lita Ford, formerly of the Runaways (July 17); R&B legends Brian McKnight (July 19) and Sister Sledge (July 21); ’80s pop icons Eddie Money (July 23) and Belinda Carlisle (July 28); plus longtime rockers Smash Mouth (July 22), Blues Traveler (July 24) and The Marshall Tucker Band (July 29).

Country fans will queue up for John Michael Montgomery (July 15) and Trace Adkins (July 27). Adding something for everyone are Latino rockers Ozomatli (July 16), pop-punk rockers Good Charlotte (July 20) and Christian pop band Anthem Lights (July 25). Tribute bands Queen Nation (July 18) and Paperback Writer (July 26) will pump out plenty of sing-along tunes.

Debbie Arrington: 916-321-1075, @debarrington

California State Fair

Where: Cal Expo, 1600 Exposition Blvd., Sacramento

When: July 14-30. Open 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays, 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Fridays-Sundays.

Admission: $12; seniors (age 62 and up), $10; youth (ages 5-12), $8; children age 4 and under admitted free. Parking, $15.

Details: www.castatefair.org

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