Oz-themed San Diego County Fair set to lift off today


Even before opening day gets under way today at the San Diego County Fair, the annual five-week event at the Del Mar Fairgrounds is already one for the record books.

This year’s fair — which opens at 4 p.m. today and runs through 11 p.m. on July 4 — will run a record 27 days, making it the longest-running fair in North America, as well as the largest in the United States.

But if those facts aren’t enough to impress visitors, then the creative minds behind this year’s imaginatively designed entry gates have set their own record.

In honor of this year’s “Ozsome” fair theme, a 40-member team from Pacific Events Productions has spent the past several weeks building an elaborate “Wizard of Oz”-inspired gate that stands 43 feet high. It’s the tallest gate the San Diego company has built for the fair in nearly 20 years of designing and building them, according to employees Becky Chester and Jennifer Wolford, who were onsite Thursday overseeing the gate’s final assembly and painting.

L. Frank Baum is said to have written many of his “Oz” books while wintering in Coronado from 1904 to 1910, so the entry gate features several oversize versions of these books as well as the gates to the emerald city, a yellow brick road and an enormous pair of Dorothy’s silver slippers (they were changed to ruby slippers for the 1939 film). In Baum’s honor, the entryway statue of fair ambassador Don Diego has been dressed up this year in an emerald-hued top hat and tux.

Inside the gates on Thursday, retail vendors, restaurant booth operators, gardeners and exhibitors were rushing to make final preparations.

In the midway area, Amy Reed and Cher O’Dell were hanging stuffed animals in the Balloon Pop booth, where everybody who spends $5 to toss beanbags at balloons is guaranteed a prize. They’re employees of Paul’s Concessions, a Texas-based carnival game operation that spends 11 months of the year at fairs throughout the Western U.S. Paul Nemeth followed his father into the business and his son is now in training to carry on when he retires. Reed said the San Diego County Fair run is one of the company’s busiest locations.

A few hundred yards away, Marlon Featherstone was doing touch-up painting on the front wall of the German Fun House, an old-fashioned walk-through playground for adults that includes an indoor obstacle course and nonstop soundtrack of polka music. Featherstone usually oversees Fun House operations from his home in Ohio, but he flies to Del Mar each summer to supervise operations onsite because he loves the scenery in California.

“We do really well here in San Diego,” Featherstone said. “Opening weekend is always good for business and you’d be surprised that most of our customers are adults, not kids.”

One of the quietest areas at the fairgrounds Thursday was the animal barns. Livestock shows don’t begin until Saturday, so none of the beef cattle, market pigs, dairy goats, llamas or other hooved animals had arrived yet. This summer’s fair won’t have any birds on exhibit because a regional outbreak of the Newcastle avian virus has made group exhibitions unsafe for the birds.

In the garden exhibition area, chefs atEmerald Farms Eatery were conducting a final test-prep of menu items for an employee tasting on Thursday. Emerald Farms is one of six fair food and drink concessions operated by the fairgrounds’ in-house catering business, Premiere Food Services.

Premiere’s restaurants this year include a grilled cheese truck, a taco shop, flatbread booth, a tiki speakeasy and a new Paddock location serving Seaside Market’s famous marinated tri-tip Cardiff Crack. But the Oz-themed Emerald Farms location is the favorite of Premiere’s executive chef Barry Schneider because it serves healthy and locally sourced food items like gourmet toasts, salads, sandwiches, crispy Brussels sprouts and shareable cheese and charcuterie plates priced form $7 to $14.

Some of the Oz-themed options include Dorothy’s Grilled Cheese, with an emerald-colored filling made with avocado, spinach and green goddess pesto and cheese; the Wizard’s pulled pork sandwich with Carolina BBQ sauce and green apple slaw; and Good Witch and Bad Witch toasts made with ingredients such as black pepper ricotta, fresh black mission figs, lavender honey, edamame hummus and oven-roasted tomatoes.

“We’re off the beaten path, but people know we’re here,” Schneider said. “It’s quieter, you can sit and relax and spend a lot less money on food. Most of our regulars each year are fair employees.”

San Diego County Fair

When: Opens at 4 p.m. today and runs through July 4. Closed Mondays and Tuesdays, except July 1 and 2. Gates open at 11 a.m. daily, except today and closing day (when it opens at 10 a.m.). Gates close at 10 p.m. Sundays, Wednesdays and Thursdays and 11 p.m. on Fridays, Saturdays and July 4.

Where: Del Mar Fairgrounds, 2260 Jimmy Durante Blvd., Del Mar

Tickets: $20 for adults, ages 13 to 61. $14 for children ages 6 to 12 and seniors 62 and over. Children 5 and under are free. A 27-day season pass is available for $32 at the fair box office and at San Diego County Albertsons and Vons stores. Children 12 and under get in free on Fridays. Albertsons and Vons supermarkets are also offering a $6 Fair Days ticket deal for admission only today, Saturday and on Wednesday ($10 minimum store purchase required)

Parking: Onsite parking is $17 ($27 in the preferred lot). Off-site parking is $5 at the Del Mar Horsepark, at 14550 El Camino Real, Del Mar, with free shuttle service from 9 a.m. to closing every day. Free off-site parking with shuttle service is available on weekends only and July 1-4 at Torrey Pines High School, 3710 Del Mar Heights Rd, San Diego; and at MiraCosta College San Elijo campus, 3333 Manchester Ave, Cardiff.

Public transit: For $21, adult fairgoers can buy a Fair Tripper combo ticket ($13 for children ages 6 to 12 and seniors 65 and over), which includes one-day fair admission and round-trip transportation on the Coaster and Sprinter trains to the Solana Beach station, where Breeze special route 408 buses leave every 20 minutes for the fair’s west gate.

Phone: (858) 755-1161