All's Fair in Love and OC

When it's the opening day of the Orange County Fair, you have plenty of time in traffic — an hour, in fact, just to get from Santa Ana to the fairgrounds — to realize just how poorly the 55 is designed. Immediately after some major road feeds into it, forcing a mass slowing as a new torrent of cars merges inward, yet another major road feeds into it, and just as soon as that's integrated, another still. Even when the freeway's just about to end, there are still major roads feeding in, and if there's a free fair to be had (free for the first hour, anyway), this equates to a really numb clutch foot, assuming you drive stick (and I'm starting to think I may be the only person left who does, mostly because I got my car from my dad and he's old-school all the way).

It's sweet relief to be able to walk among bales of hay en route to the entrance. I rather redundantly pick up a press pass, only realizing afterward that it's free anyway. First thing on display inside is a massive, work-in-progress sand sculpture of cartoon cows hitting the beach, in keeping with this year's “cow-abunga” theme.

As a fair nube, one thing I find surprising is the amount of booths that seem to be hawking stuff you'd see on late-night infomercials — devices designed to make it easier to wind up electrical cords, instant salsa (just add tomatoes!), earthquake-survival kits, free back exams, new water filters (I had a sample — tasted the same as Santa Ana tap water to me), giant American flags for sale. With the exception of the water filter, these booths seemed quite popular.

Curiously less popular was a microbrew tent, which sold a most excellent pint of beer made from passion fruit. The bartender offered a sample first — apparently some customers had been excessively surprised by the taste — but it was exactly what one would hope: the combined flavor of beer and sour passion fruit.

Agricultural education takes a bit of a back seat at these events nowadays to large multicolored machines that, as Ming the Merciless might say, hurl you out into the void with no thought of what might be waiting. Being prone to motion sickness, I don't do rides like that, even though they're all just a buck on Fridays. More my speed were the bumper cars, but having experienced similar cars all day for free at the Ink and Iron Festival, the ride felt woefully short.

The three ghost trains on offer were interesting. First — and best — was one called Creepshow, which is the only one that actually has an upper level; it scores good cheap shocks with sudden loud hisses of steam. Dimly lit mad scientists and tarantulas await, but creepiest of all are the pieces of unseen black tarp that drape over you at various points. It feels less like a haunting than it does the hands of an invisible molester. Now that's creepy.

If you have the chutzpah to call your ride Haunted Mansion, you'd better back it up — you don't see any of these roller coasters calling themselves Space Mountain, do you? Alas, there's not much to it, though the apparent theme of zombies being electrocuted is a good motif. There isn't anything good to say about Ghost Pirates, a ride that can't even be bothered to conceal its own fans and light boxes within the mediocre displays of skeletons saying, “Pieces of eight! Pieces of eight!” over and over.

The kiddie fun houses looked like they'd be a blast for smaller people, though I was curious as to why one of them was called the Moscow Circus. John Wayne is turning in his grave at the thought, no doubt.

The ski-lift ride that lifts you many, many feet in the air from one end of the fair to the other looked like fun, so I got on . . . and it scared the bejeezus out of me in ways I didn't think possible. A bench suspended in mid-air and hanging from a rope just doesn't feel all that sturdy. Fortunately, a charming lady named Deborah, whom I met in the beer tent, was willing to make the kind of silly small talk with me that takes the mind off death on the concrete below. Still, when she wanted to go on the big wheel afterward, I declined, needing to stay on the sweet, sweet ground for a while.

It just isn't a true fair experience until you've eaten some kind of grotesque food that doesn't exist in nature. I knew right off the bat that the chicken sandwich in a Krispy Kreme donut dipped in honey was more than I could take, so I started with some healthy vegetables. A green pepper filled with nacho sauce was way overpriced at $3.50, and the nacho sauce could have been a bit spicier — but overall, not a bad treat.

Curiosity demands that anything called “deep-fried Coke” be sampled, but good sense requires that it not be finished. Think of those crumbs beneath the fish at Long John Silver's. Now imagine them overcooked, with a vaguely burnt sugar flavor, congealing at the very bottom of the cup into a grease ball. Also, the whole thing's topped with whipped cream and a cherry. Ironically, the stand selling this “treat” served Pepsi beverages on tap.

I was determined to eat something fried that I liked, so the Coke was followed by deep-fried Oreos with chocolate sauce and sprinkles. Hoping the white Oreo filling would liquefy, I was disappointed to find it calcified. The stuff tasted okay but would have actually been even better without the Oreo inside — just fried batter balls with sprinkles, mmm-mmm!

The true spirit of old-time carnies was alive and well at a booth that promised a look at a “giant steer” for a buck — 6-foot-6, and 10,000 burgers' worth. I ponied up the dough, and yes, it was one huge mofo, though since it never actually stood up, the height was hard to judge. Its nut sack was about the size of my head, though.

A similarly giant horse was promised for another dollar, but big horses aren't as cool because we don't eat them and they don't have horns. Speaking of eating animals, though, it does seem a little odd to see kids being invited to pet the cattle. Do they know this is where dinner comes from? Maybe the cows appreciate it, though.

Willie Nelson was the musical guest on opening night, requiring a different ticket — I was hoping we'd hear some of the show regardless, but didn't end up staying late enough. The diversity of acts scheduled for the duration is quite something: Ziggy Marley, She Wants Revenge, Fergie, Weird Al Yankovic . . . Lollapalooza never had range like that. But I'm dating myself.

The evening's capper for me was a show by some Chinese acrobats, which featured a high point of one guy making a tower out of, like, 15 chairs, then doing a one-hand stand atop it. But I had violated good sense by starting my beer drinking too early — the comedown headache was kicking in, and I just wanted to go home. But I'd certainly go back; rarely do I see such events where there truly is something for everyone.


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