Sweets-themed fair kicks off summer run


For the 31st year in a row, Escondido resident Margaret Austin was first in line for San Diego County Fair’s opening day on Friday afternoon.

She arrived in Del Mar on the 308 bus from Escondido at 5:30 a.m. Friday to ensure nobody beat her to the gate when it opened at 4 p.m. She’s known as the “Pig Lady” because she enjoys the baby pig races. But this year she said she’s looking forward to trying all the new foods.

That seemed to be the mood of most opening-day visitors, many of whom made a direct beeline from the carousel- and candy cane-bedecked front gates to the food booths.

Sugary foods are a prime attraction this year, but music, exhibits and a sweet train layout were drawing crowds on Friday

This year’s fair — which is expected to draw as many as 1.6 million visitors during its 26-day run through July 4 — will feature 500 shops, more than 100 concerts, 80 rides and dozens of exhibits and special events.

At Chicken Charlie’s, the fastest-selling product in the first hour of business was one of this year’s new items, a cotton candy ice cream sandwich rolled in Fruity Pebbles cereal. It’s one of many unicorn- and rainbow-themed items tied to this year’s fair theme, “How Sweet It Is.”

Over at the 37-year-old Country Fair Cinnamon Rolls booth, a rainbow-and-sparkle variety roll has joined the menu. Manager Gaspar Marquez Santana said San Diego has a big sweet tooth, with local fair visitors downing an average 45,000 cinnamon rolls each summer.

This year’s fair theme is a boon for new exhibitor Candy Pros, which took over the former Farrell’s ice cream parlor booth at the Exhibit Hall.

Younan and Maysoon Hallak opened the National City-based bulk candy business 35 years ago and now run two locations, plus the fair booth, with their four children ages 31 to 41.

Fair visitors can buy 8-ounce tubs of gumballs, sour belts and jawbreakers or the “world’s largest” chocolate-dipped gummy bear (weighing nearly a pound). But they’re especially proud of their Mexican specialty candies, like gummies drenched in sweet-spicy chamoy sauce.

But one of the fair’s most intoxicating candy-themed attractions Friday wasn’t even edible. It was the San Diego Garden Railway Society’s 1,000-square-foot G-scale miniature train layout in the garden show area.

Designed and built over the past year by club members Dick Ericksen, Andrew Kann and Eugene Cook with a few volunteers, it traces C&H sugar from the canefields of Hawaii to the factories of America with eight different trains, 300 feet of track, boats, a giant illuminated erupting volcano, live sugarcane plants, factories, sound effects and live fish.

The elaborate display won three garden show awards, including the Pat Welsh trophy for the exhibit most likely to capture children’s imagination.

Kann, a Chula Vista civil engineer who underwrote the exhibit and built many of its technical elements, said there’s no satisfaction greater than seeing the wonder on the faces of fair visitors.

“Last year, we had adults standing here for a half-hour and a lot of the kids will argue with their parents when it’s time to leave,” Kann said.

As the crowd grew around the train, a smaller but steady flow of visitors stopped nearby at the Ask a Master Gardener booth. Carol Graham, a master gardener since 1983 and coordinator of volunteers, said the booth gets a surprising amount of foot traffic, except during the dinner hours of 5 to 7.

She said gardeners store up their questions all year and often arrive with similar queries. The most-asked questions have to do with citrus and tomato-growing tips and how to safely eliminate garden pests. The booth is run by the University of California Cooperative Extension Master Gardeners.

Meanwhile, at the information booth near the front gate, fair staff said the most-asked questions from people coming through the fair gates are where to find Chicken Charlie’s and other favorite food and vendor booths.

Among the first fair-goers through the gates Friday were 40something best friends Aileen Libby and Arlene Rivera. Despite living for many years in San Diego, this was their first-ever trip to the fair.

They said they were eager to see the exhibits and try some cocktails, but they both had a No. 1 priority.

“We just want to eat everything,” Libby said.

San Diego County Fair

When: Gates generally open at 11 a.m. on weekdays and 10 a.m. on weekends. Gates generally close at 11 p.m. Fair is closed Mondays and Tuesdays, except July 2 and 3. Runs through July 4.

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

Tickets: $19 for adults, ages 13 to 61. $12 for seniors. $12 for children ages 6 to 12. Children 5 and under are free. A 26-day season pass is available for $28 at San Diego County Albertsons stores through June 30. Children 12 and under get in free on Fridays.

Parking: Onsite parking is $15 ($25 in the preferred lot). Free off-site parking with shuttle service is available (beginning June 2) during fair hours at the Del Mar Horsepark, 14550 El Camino Real, Del Mar; Torrey Pines High School, 3710 Del Mar Heights Road, San Diego; and MiraCosta College San Elijo campus, 3333 Manchester Ave., Cardiff.

Public transit: For $20, adult fairgoers can buy a Fair Tripper combo ticket ($12 for children ages 6 to 12), 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) 792-4252