By CATEY HILL
1. "This one's on you whether you attend or not."
Not a big fan of your state's annual fair? You still may be funding it -- even if you've never set foot in the midway or bought a funnel cake. While most state fairs operate on their income from admissions, rides and food sales, industry experts say they also typically receive help from taxpayers for their infrastructure. The Kansas State Fair, for example, says that while it's responsible for generating its own revenue, "occasional funding is received from the State for improvements to the facilities." And some states go even further. For example, Illinois' two state fairs "are costing taxpayers much more than their ticket prices suggest," according to a 2010 paper for the Illinois Policy Institute. "One hundred percent of the people are subsidizing the few in attendance," says John Tillman, CEO of the nonpartisan research organization, noting that the fairs have lost between $3.5 and $4.5 million each year over the past few years. Taxpayer dollar are making up some of the shortfall, funding everything from salaries to prizes and other operating expenses, he says. Jeff Squibb, a spokesperson for the fair, says that the paper neglects to factor in that the fair generates $40 million in earnings for local businesses.
2. "Some of our snacks are real heartbreakers."
San Diego-resident Charlie Boghosian, or"Chicken Charlie" as he's widely known, can deep fry just about anything -- from frogs legs to Oreos. And he sells these fat- and calorie-laden concoctions at state and county fairs across California: He sold more than 100,000 fried Kool-Aid balls, his latest creation, during the San Diego County Fair this year. Other state and country fairs also specialize in this new breed of junk food, including deep-fried spaghetti and meatballs, chocolate-covered bacon on a stick and burgers with Krispy Kreme donuts as buns. In fact, the food is "one of the biggest draws to the fairs," says Jim Tucker, president of the International Association of Fairs and Expositions. Why? "There's nostalgia, novelty and the feeling of 'treating yourself' when it comes to indulging in state fair food," says Michelle Leotta Pfennighaus, a wellness and nutrition coach.
But health experts say beware. A funnel cake is loaded with 760 calories and 44 grams of fat, a deep-fried Snickers with 444 calories and 29 grams of fat and a giant turkey leg with a whopping 1,136 calories and 54 grams of fat, according to CalorieKing.com. And it's not just the fat and calories you need to worry about, says health counselor Susie Beiler. "A lot these foods use ingredients like high-fructose corn syrup, genetically modified ingredients and trans fats -- all of which are scientifically proven to harm your health," she says. Not to mention your finances. An obese person will spend between $807 and $2,845 more per year in health care costs than the average normal weight person, according to a 2010 study by researchers at George Washington University. Boghosian says that the Kool-Aid dish "isn't any more unhealthy than French Fries at McDonald's" and points out that he also offers healthy options like fresh hummus and chicken kabobs with vegetables.
3. "We're charging you more for less."
At some fairs across the country, you can expect to pay more for things like admission, food and entertainment. For the first time since 2007, the Kentucky State Fair is raising admission prices for adults by 20% to $10, and for children by 33% to $6. In Colorado, admissions this year rose by 40% -- to $7 on weekdays and $10 on weekends -- and carnival rides will cost $5 more. (A spokesman for the Colorado State Fair says that they had to raise admissions prices amid rising operating costs but that the fair "still offers a great value." A spokesperson for the Kentucky State Fair could not be reached). "Over the last few years, some fairs have had to raise prices to keep revenue up," Tucker says. "Many hadn't raised their prices in years." The average state fair price of admission is $8, up from about $6 to $7 about 10 years ago, Tucker says.
Even if you don't see a higher price at the gates, you may be paying more to see less, experts say. At the Du Quoin State Fair in Illinois, for example, attendees will see fewer livestock competitions -- with lower prize money for winners. What's more, experts say you can expect to shell out more for those deep fried Kit-Kats and gigantic turkey legs this year. "Food prices are up dramatically for some items like grains -- which are in high demand for livestock feed -- corn and milk," says Jack Plunkett, the chief executive of Plunkett Research, a market research firm that studies the food industry. That means higher prices for burgers and other meat products that use corn, experts say.
4. "Good luck avoiding the stumping pols."
From Abraham Lincoln, who spoke out against slavery at the Illinois State Fair in 1854, to Barack Obama, who showed his fun-loving side by riding the bumper cars at the Iowa State Fair in 2007, U.S. politicians have a long history of trying to sell themselves at state fairs. But it's not just about the sheer number of potential voters at these fairs that's attracting politicians, experts say. "People don't necessarily vote based on policies, a lot of it has to do with likability," says Leonard Steinhorn, a professor of communication at American University. And the state fairs offer a good opportunity for politicians to "show voters a softer, less serious side of their personality by giving them the opportunity to communicate outside of the traditional stump speech through one on one communication," says Marissa Shorenstein, a former communications director for both Andrew Cuomo and David Paterson.
And fair attendees may be more willing to donate to a candidates' campaign, as the carefree conditions of the state fair prime us towards opening our wallets, say experts. For one, exposure to sunlight -- something you're sure to get most days at a state fair -- makes consumers willing to spend more money, according to a study published in 2010 by researchers from the University of Alberta and University of Winnepeg, both in Canada. Furthermore, at least one study suggests that being in a good mood -- which, amid the rides, food and animals, many state fair attendees are -- leads to increased spending.
5. "Your kids can get really sick here."
At the North Carolina State Fair in 2004, hundreds of children and adults alike enjoyed the company of the sheep, goats and other animals at the CrossRoads Farm Petting Zoo. But that fun was short-lived, as roughly 108 people ended up with an E. coli infection, likely from the petting zoo, a state investigation concluded. Several of these attendees also ended up contracting hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), a potentially deadly disorder that damages the kidneys, says Bill Marler, the founder of the Marler Clark law firm, which represents many E. coli cases. "These people were really sick," he says. "We saw medical bills for some go over $1 million." A spokesperson for the North Carolina State Fair could not be reached for comment.
And it's not just petting zoos at state fairs that can make you sick. "Undercooked foods and germs are a risk," Marler says. "The sellers are trying to produce a lot of food in a short amount of time, so safety isn't always practiced." And, because you're in a crowd of people, some of whom might be ill, experts say there's a risk of contracting airborne illnesses like colds and flu. In fact, about 120 teens were sent home from the Minnesota State Fair in 2009, after a few members of their 4-H troupe came down with the H1N1 flu virus. (The IAFE says that cases of serious illness, like an E.coli infection, at state fairs are "very, very rare" and a spokesperson for the North Carolina fair says that there have been "no other instances" besides the 2004 one.)
6. "Yes, the games are rigged."
Don't hold your breath for that over-sized teddy bear. "The games aren't always fair, but they're legal," says Mark Cox, chief of investigations for the Hillsborough County State Attorney in Florida, which investigates the fairness of state fair games. In effect: It's not that you can't win the games like ring toss, basketball or dart-throwing, it's just that you probably won't. Why? For one, looks can be misleading, says former carnival worker Aahz, who asked that his full name be withheld to protect his privacy. For example, the darts are typically dull and the balloons are under-inflated. The basketballs are overinflated and the hoop isn't regulation sized. And the water guns aren't very accurate, as most receive almost "zero maintenance," he says.
Winning, therefore, requires a lot of practice runs -- and money. Many carnival games charge $1 or more per try, and most people play multiple times, Aahz says. "Any decent carny will get a minimum of three plays out of a player, with maybe one out of every ten players making more than five purchases," he says. But, you didn't need a carny to tell you that: "I've played a bunch of games but hardly ever win anything bigger than the pity prize," says Sparks. "They are designed to make you lose so you'll end up paying like $20 to win a $1 stuffed monkey."
7. "Our rides might hurt."
Amusement park rides, some of them at state fairs, have caused dozens of accidents and even a few deaths. At the Salem Fair in Virginia this year, a hat flew off one the riders on the Rip Tide roller coaster and got lodged in the breaking system, causing the cars to crash into each other -- sending six riders to the hospital. At the North Carolina State Fair in 2002, a child was injured and a worker killed when the child accidentally kicked the worker when the ride was in motion, sending his body flying through the air. Tucker, IAFE's president, says that such accidents are rare and that individual states set specific inspection guidelines for fair rides.
But Jason Herrera, founder of the Amusement Safety Organization, says in 2010 his nonprofit received 838 complaints of ride injuries, some of them from state fairs. "Many of these injuries are the result of people who have pre-existing conditions like heart disease or a bad back," Herrera says. "But some are the result of faulty equipment." In fact, his data shows that 38% of ride injuries are back injuries and 22% are neck injuries. And these kinds of injuries don't come cheap: Back pain, for example, can cost as little as $500 a year to treat (for the occasional massage or visit to the chiropractor) to $75,000 to $100,000 for a single lower back surgery, in addition to the $20,000 of physical therapy you might need, experts estimate.
8. "Our days may be numbered."
The state of Nevada has held a state fair every single year since 1874 -- that is, until this year. Amid financial issues, the fair's board of directors announced on March 8, 2011 that there would be no state fair this year. "Unfortunately, the fair was not able to raise enough support and funding from citizens statewide, major corporations, or government agencies and officials to help offset the deficit which could've potentially kept the event going," officials wrote on the site.
Nevada isn't alone. The 160-year-old Michigan State Fair -- one of the nation's oldest -- was also forced to shut down in 2010 after then Governor Jennifer M. Granholm, who was then facing a $1.8 billion state budget deficit, proposed in 2009 to stop giving money to the fair (the fair had declared losses of $362,000 in 2008). Even fairs that are still open are facing massive state funding cuts. In South Dakota, the state fair has had its budget slashed more than 60% since 2008 to just $270,000, says South Dakota State Fairgrounds Manager Jerome Hertel. And the Washington State Fairs Association, which holds fairs across the state, has already slashed its budget by $250,000 in both 2012 and 2013 to $1,750,000 annually, which considering the other proposals -- one of which would completely eliminate funding for the fair -- the association considered "very good news."
9. "Kindness to animals comes second."
Several state fairs across the country feature so-called "living birthing exhibits," where pregnant cows, pigs, goats and other livestock deliver their young before a crowd of spectators -- all while a veterinarian emcees the proceedings. While these attractions have long drawn protests from animal rights groups, one exhibit held last year at the California State Fair created a bigger-than-usual uproar after the fair police reportedly fired eleven shots at a pregnant cow after she escaped her holding pen, killing her and her unborn calf, says Jennifer Fearing, the California Senior State Director of the Humane Society of the United States. "It was a serious mess up." A California State Fair spokeswoman says that they have renovated their facilities to prevent it from happening again.
Activists say animal cruelty is not uncommon at state fairs. Some fairs have what's called a "greased pig contest," in which workers grease up a pig, put it in a ring and then let children chase it around trying to catch it, says Lindsay Rajt a spokeswoman for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Other cases of abuse, says Fearing, include attractions in which children throw pennies at an alligator ("I'm told pennies got lodged in the animals' eyes last year," she says) and awarding animals to kids as prizes without also providing instruction on how to care for them. For their part, fairs claim instances like the cow shooting are "extremely rare" and that many fair exhibitors "depend on these animals to make a living, so they treat them very well," according to the IAFE's Tucker.
10. "Working here is no picnic."
When a couple of guest workers from Mexico showed up at a local hospital in Syracuse, N.Y., last Labor Day weekend, an intake official noticed they looked exhausted, malnourished and dehydrated. The reason: They'd been working for one of the vendors at the New York State Fair and were kept on duty for nearly 24 hours straight and paid roughly $3 an hour instead of the $10 promised, the workers told officials. "They really wanted to work -- that's what they came to the U.S. for -- but the conditions were unbearable," says Rebecca Fuentes, a labor rights activist at the Workers Center of Central New York. (The U.S. Department of Labor ruled that the vendor owed more than $115,000 in back wages to about 13 employees; the company is appealing the ruling, saying that the monetary penalty was excessive.)
Incidents like these aren't isolated, says Rachel Micah-Jones, who advocates for state fair workers. In fact, Centro de los Derechos del Migrante, which represents Mexican immigrants, handles "dozens of cases of workers being mistreated each year" at fairs and carnivals -- a number that's been "rising steadily" in the past few years, Micah-Jones says. On top of that, many of the jobs are minimum wage or just barely above it, experts say, and you may have to deal with unpleasant things like animal feces or extremely hot weather. Tucker of the IAFE says that the fairs are a good place to work: "A lot of people take vacation so they can work at a state fair."