TURLOCK — Greasy fried food on a stick. A queasy ride on the Scrambler. Blue-ribbon pigs within petting distance.
County fairs haven't changed much through the years, and that's much of their appeal.
That nostalgia, along with being a relatively cheap date, is what Stanislaus County Fair organizers hope will keep people coming to the fairgrounds during tough economic times. The 10-day event opens today in Turlock.
"People cannot afford their trips to Southern California amusement parks or their trips to visit Aunt Sue in Arizona," said fair spokeswoman Pennie Rorex. "They're looking to be close to home because it's affordable."
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Attendance at the Merced County Fair, which closed last weekend, was unchanged this year compared with 2007 — about 79,000, according to preliminary estimates. Spokeswoman Diane Conway credits a push to sell discounted tickets, at $6 each, at locations throughout the county.
"The (salesperson) at the Merced Mall told me it was like selling gift certificates at Christmastime," Conway said. "I think people still want to go and have fun. They're just being more careful about how they spend their money."
At the Stanislaus County Fairground, Turlock resident Betsy Borba bought her tickets in advance and said she planned to cut back on concession food.
"My kids usually go two or three times," Borba said. "This year, we'll probably only go once."
Maria Zuniga of Turlock planned to take her 6-year-old daughter for the first time.
"It's near to our house, and she'll have fun," she said.
During the recession in the early 1990s, the Stanislaus County Fair was hit hard. From 1989 to 1993, attendance dropped from about 261,000 to barely 200,000.
The fair's attendance has recovered some since 1993, averaging about 219,000 the past few years. Adult tickets were raised to $10 this year at the door, a $2 increase from last year, to keep up with rising costs. Advance tickets are discounted, and there are plenty of coupons.
Concerts are the fair's No. 1 attraction, Rorex said, and an eclectic mix of music programs is a way to attract fairgoers from all demographics.
On Saturday, people 65 and older get in free, with a traditional concert band playing before the alternative rock act Bowling for Soup goes on at 8:30 p.m.
On Thursday, ages 12 and younger get in free and can catch Disney Channel star and pop act Raven-Symoné as part of the deal.
The fair wraps up its last night with a lineup of Spanish-language acts hosted by radio station Ke-Buena, including Mexican folkloric ballet and mariachi music.
Fair historian Chris Rasmussen, a professor at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey, said county fairs could see a boost in popularity as part of a trend to spend money locally, like choosing a farmers market over a grocery store chain.
"People may similarly wish they have local events to go to in the summer that aren't so far away, not so expensive, and have something to do with their locale," he said.
Beyond economics, county fairs these days also are challenged to keep up with the ways people have fun in the 21st century, from interactive video games to blockbuster summer films.
"We have so many more kinds of entertainment now than farm families had," Rasmussen said.
He noted that 19th century fairs began as a place for farmers to share agricultural techniques. They morphed into annual vacations for families, complete with the same livestock exhibits, midway rides and food booths we know today.
"(Fairs were) an opportunity to get off the farm. Now it's an opportunity to show your kids what animals look like," Rasmussen said.
Bee staff writer Merrill Balassone can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2337.