The New York State Fair is one of my absolute favorite things about summer, and it’s almost here.
My love for the Fair goes back my whole life. When I was little, my mother used to work at one of the booths as a prep girl, getting food ready so her boss could demonstrate the Oster blender. Some nights we’d go in to see her, and get to look around the place. Seeing the Midway lit up at night, not just from right there but also from the highway going home, is seared into my mind. Later, my mother worked for the Fair directly, and she still helps out occasionally.
In the ’90s, the Fair really blossomed. I worked at the milk bar in ’93 when I was 16; during meal breaks I’d grab a cheap hot dog from Twin Trees and walk to her office, which was air conditioned, and read. I got one day off that year, which happened on student day, so my cousin joined me and we did rides the whole day. That was the last year I did many rides, because we had an epic 15-minute spin on the Tilt-A-Whirl. We both got extremely motion sick, and thought the slow-paced elevated swing ride would help. It helped me, but he puked when we got off. He later became a pilot. True story.
During the next few years we went to the Fair a lot. I started college, which started during the full week of the Fair (since the late ’80s it’s been going 12 days, from a Thursday to Labor Day), but would often go in at night because my mother worked there, and for a few years my sister did too. Later in the decade, and on into the new century for a couple of years, my dad’s company had a popular booth in the Center of Progress building.
If I tried to describe all the ways the Fair has changed, I could go on forever, but it’ll suffice to list some of my favorite things about it, past and present, and some I plan to hit this year.
- Center of Progress: Once the hub of all things awesome at the Fair, it’s suffered in recent years as there have been fewer vendors inside, and they’ve moved the giant sand sculpture from the Horticulture building. Nevertheless, there’s still great stuff in here. You’ll find toys, windows, advocacy booths, state offices (useful if you need a DMV form), candy, cookware, massagers, shoes, pet stuff, products as seen on TV, and hot tubs.
- Horticulture Building: This has become the home to some of the more interesting vendors. Usually you’ll find a place here selling dessert mixes to make a great pie, some really terrific art, a few gadgety things, and more. The maple, apple, honey, and potato booths are all extremely popular. The restaurants at the back are terrific, and you can get kangaroo spiedies and gator bites here. (No joke. I’ve had the kangaroo spiedie.) Two enclosed gardens, walled off in recent years but recently reopened, are worth spending time in, especially at night.
- Dairy Products Building: Home to the famous (and let’s be honest, in recent years underwhelming) butter sculpture, the Rainbow Milk Bar, and dairy products galore. This is the place to buy fresh cheese curd. Try the garlic cheese curd; if you like garlic you won’t be sorry. You can get waffles and ice cream, fudge, frozen novelties, shakes, and other treats. Frozen cheesecake on a stick? Yes, ma’am!
- Art & Home Building: I have some good memories of this place; my uncle used to always have art on exhibit, so I still go and take a look. There’s other stuff here, including a room with model trains on display that I know my dad has always enjoyed a lot, but I come for the art. You can also find the results of quilting and scrapbooking competitions here, and cooking demonstrations.
- Dinosaur Bar-B-Que: A Syracuse favorite, serving up great food at the Fair since the mid-’90s. They’re directly across from the Dairy building, next to Chevy Court. I like the chicken spiedies, which are generously stuffed with meat.
- Chevy Court: Formerly Cole Muffler Court, formerly Miller Court. Between all the main buildings, this is a big stage with a lot of bench seating on a wide lawn. Lots of good acts do shows here, free to the public, usually twice a day. I see Chubby Checker is back this year. I saw him in the same venue years ago and he put on an awesome show; I can’t imagine he still has any breath left in him, but if I’m wrong then he’s worth seeing. Also there’s that country band that’s polluting the pop stations this year with that “Cruise” song. Feh.
- Grandstand: You pay for admission to the concerts here, but the acts are bigger. Recent years have seen some unfilled slots, but they always get some good acts in. On Labor Day they host a demolition derby.
- International Food Pavilion: There are a lot of good restaurants in here, especially if you’re looking for something with an ethnic touch. My mother loves the tempura she can get here. There used to be an area for little shops and booths in a corner of the building, but most of those have moved to the Hort or elsewhere.
- Midway: Oh man, the Midway. The epicenter of the Fair’s rides and carnival games, adjacent to some of its best food, always humming with people and activity. The Infield is nearby; I never spent much time there, but there are a lot of games and rides there as well. Go-kart racing isn’t too far off the Midway either, so I’ll count it.
- Restaurant Row: Between the end of the Fair with all the best buildings, and the end where you’ll find the Midway, Indian Village (the land in that section belongs to the Iroquois), and horses, you’ll find two things: Livestock buildings and Restaurant Row. Most of the best restaurants are along this path, including the fabulous Butcher Boys who serve steak sandwiches and chicken pitas. Twin Trees is at one end, and Baker’s Chicken Coop and Anna’s Sicilian Pizza are near the other. There’s a booth here, near the Coliseum, that fries all kinds of stuff.
- Coliseum: The center of all the horse competitions. I’m not a horse guy, but this is a great place to stop and rest a bit in the afternoon. I like the competitions where they’re jumping fences the best, because then you really get to see something. The Mounties did a show here one year that was really something.
- Drinks: There are many of the alcoholic variety, but as I don’t drink, I go for the good stuff: fresh lemonade, and of course my beloved Pepsi and Mountain Dew. There’s a stand on Restaurant Row up not far from the Coliseum that will do fresh fruit drinks with any sweetener you like; I like to get lemon and orange, with just regular sugar. Fresh lemon-orangeade is far superior to lemonade, and for my money it’s the best drink on the Fairgrounds.
- Fountain: Between the Art & Home and Horticulture buildings, there’s a big pool with a fountain, surrounded by tree-shaded picnic tables. It’s a great place to sit for a bit, especially at night, if it isn’t too crowded.
- Fried everything: There are two fry booths of note. One is green and white and on Restaurant Row near the Coliseum, and serves a lot of novelty stuff including fried cheese curds (yum!), sandwiches, wings, and desserts. They used to do a fried grilled cheese that was to die for. It’s sort of a we’ll-fry-anything place; I’m not sure if they’ll fry food from other vendors or not, but that’s their vibe anyway. The other fry booth is along the front fence line these days, pretty much on the opposite side of the Coliseum, but used to be near the kids’ Midway by the Little Caesar’s talent stage. They do fried mashed potatoes (bacon and cheese, or garlic) and fried macaroni and cheese. Although they’re a little out of the way now, they’re worth the walk.
- The Villa: A longstanding Fair tradition, the Villa serves up Pizze Fritte, two-foot-long fried dough. You’ll find them near the intersection between the Dairy Products building, International Foods, and the Midway.
- Dippin’ Dots: I know you can find these in other places, but you can’t go to the Fair and not get these. I long for their sherbet flavors of old, though: Pink lemonade and fruit punch were the best flavors of Dippin’ Dots I ever had, as good as a drink on a hot day.
- Giant plate of curly fries: Served at a restaurant near the far end of Restaurant Row. They’ll cover it in cheese for you. Bring friends.
- Butterfly fries: Essentially fresh-fried potato chips, often soft. You can find these a few places, especially near the Dairy building. Salt liberally.
- Roasted corn: Also scattered around and notably near the Dairy building, you can get fresh roasted ears of corn dipped in glorious butter, salted and seasoned however you like.
- Sand sculpture: A tradition since the ’90s, the sand sculpture has moved around a bit, but it’s always worth seeing. Nowadays they get finished a little sooner than Labor Day, which is good, because in ’98 they never got the chance thanks to the infamous Labor Day Storm. A couple of years ago they had a beautiful 9/11 tribute.
- Flea market tent: A place where you can find trinkets and oddments of all kinds. Normally there’s not a lot I want here, though novelty light-up stuff is always fun. They have T-shirts, hats, sunglasses, jewelry, crafts, you name it. Last year I found a few stone eggs, which my wife collects; most were dyed, but I picked up a primo little mookaite one for cheap.
- Video booth: I don’t think they do this anymore, but back in the ’90s there was a place in the Center of Progress, and in later years a tent called the Mall, selling cheap VHS cassettes. (Gads I feel old.) They had a pretty good selection and were really worth checking out. I kinda miss it. Back when they were around, and it wasn’t just them, you had the notion that you could always drop $20 on something other than food and come home really stoked about your purchase. Generally speaking you still can, but this was like hitting the cheap DVD bin at Walmart and coming up with about ten great movies, a real kid-in-a-candy-store feeling.
- Exotic meat on a stick: Normally I just get the chicken here, but you can get gator, shark, and other meats on a skewer. This is by the dairy building, along the street going toward the front fence.
- Bulk candy tent: Stock up for football season snacks! You can find candy here that local stores don’t carry, such as Zots (hard candy with a fizzy center) and pretty much any kind of taffy you can think of. They have pretty much everything.
- Mini donuts: I first found these in ’98, and they’ve appeared on and off spottily since then. Mostly off. They’re hard to find and don’t seem to stick around from year to year, but if you find a place that makes them fresh, buy some. They’re a delight.
- Breakfast: If I’m at the Fair early, I like to get a nice breakfast. There are tons of good places around; the Indian Village has a restaurant of high repute. Me, I’m partial to Charlie’s, nestled between the Dairy building and the Energy building. (There’s a restaurant in that same area that also serves fried mac & cheese.)
- Lego tour: Okay, they only did this one year, but I want them to come back, really badly.
- Frozen hot chocolate: I mention this because it’s one of my wife’s favorite things there, a little stand that served all kinds of chocolate and coffee beverages. She hasn’t been able to find it again recently, but they must be around someplace.
- Pirate high-dive show: I’m not sure if they still do this one, but if it’s on then you should make a point of seeing it. It’s a lot of fun.
I probably forgot a few hundred things.
The Fair has a different vibe depending on the day of the week and the time of day. Weekends are obviously much busier, especially the last weekend. In the morning the Fair is quieter, a little bit cleaner, and it has that get-ready-for-the-day sort of vibe. Afternoons are crowded and hot, right up till evening. Early evening gets all the after-work people coming in for dinner. And then on into night, as it gets on toward 10 when the buildings close again or even later when the Midway winds down to closing at midnight, it’s kind of both busy and quiet at the same time, not really crowded (except on the Midway) but still going strong. I think I like the nights the very best, because you not only get to see the place lit up, and it’s cooler than the afternoon, but it’s also kind of peaceful in a strange way.
So many sights and attractions are no more. The Skydiver, a double Ferris wheel, used to be an icon of the Midway, green neon polygons shouting at the night. The Buck and Bum, a leather shop, isn’t around anymore, nor is the tent where my sister used to work. A few things have moved around, not all for the better, and others have come and gone like the fresh mini donuts I adore. But there is love there, a great love in my heart that I don’t think will ever really die, for the Great New York State Fair. I hope in years to come it surpasses the glory days I remember, and continues to draw crowds. If it does, I’ll be there to see it.