Amid new attractions, California State Fair sticks to its roots

California State Fair organizers stayed true to their word, opening the 17-day festival Friday with all the classics – livestock, carnival rides, fried food and games.

But new exhibits, like the Whiskey Fest and the NBA Nation sponsored by Sprint, grabbed the attention of many fairgoers throughout the day.

At the NBA Nation exhibit, jovial employees cheered people on as they attempted to shoot basketballs into baskets suspended 18 and 25 feet in the air, dauntingly higher than the regulation baskets 10 feet off the ground.

“Some people can’t get into an NBA game, but this here is for everybody,” said Scott Freshnar, NBA Nation host. “Everybody of all ages can enjoy this.”

People also measured their wingspan and height as compared to NBA players, and spun a wheel for a chance to win a basketball signed by the Sacramento Kings’ Jason Thompson.

“This is a mobile NBA experience,” Freshnar said of the exhibit near the horse racing track. “If you love the NBA, you’re going to love this.”

On another side of the racetrack, representatives of bourbon and whiskey companies from around the country set up displays of liquor for the fair’s first-ever Whiskey Fest.

More than 40 whiskey and spirits companies, including Woodford Reserve and Sweet Potato Spirits, serve up samples for people ages 21 and over who buy the event’s $19 ticket.

The ticket provides access to the fair, as well as the Whiskey Fest, which includes food samplings, music, a gaming tent, and offers a $15 entry fee for designated drivers.

Other new additions to the fair this year include more seating and more shade, spokeswoman Lara Popyack said. Those areas are likely to be crowded today and Sunday, when temperatures are predicted to be considerably hotter than Friday’s 89 degrees.

Mason Ellis, 16, participated in one of the oldest of the fair’s purposes – showing livestock.

For Ellis, showing his animals is more than just a hobby, it’s a tradition that’s been passed down through his family, and something he’s been involved with since he was 9 years old.

“Once I turned 9, I just started showing (animals) like crazy,” he said.

After presenting his goats, Ellis, who raises both sheep and goats in Madera County, said the State Fair is a way to judge his animals against others.

“(The fair) is more or less trying to see where you are as compared to other breeders,” Ellis said. “You always want to improve your animals.”

In a shaded area near the barn where youths like Ellis show their livestock, people who aren’t in the agriculture industry learned how to milk goats from members of UC Davis’ School of Veterinary Medicine.

It’s the connection to animals and the heritage of the State Fair that organizers are emphasizing this year.

“A lot of times, those kind of get forgotten about,” Popyack said. “We wanted to make sure we’re remembering our roots.”

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