The Tennessee State Fair opened last night, and as has become the tradition of the Voorhees household, daughter number two and I traveled down Nolensville Road, braved the muddy field parking lot, and found ourselves in the middle of a world filled with the smells of grilling onions and peppers, cotton candy, with a whiff of Eau de Bovine for good measure.
For many Nashvillians, the fair has become something to avoid, a gathering of “undesirable” folks swilling beer and generally leaving an unsavory feeling to the event. It’s become more fashionable it seems for middle class middle Tennesseans to travel to Wilson County for the Wilson County Fair, leading some to suggest that IT should be called the State Fair for it isn’t located in the middle of an urban area and draws huge crowds. However, in spite of the limited facilities at our official fair grounds, I have come to appreciate the symbolism of our state capital continuing to host what should be the recognition of gifts and talents throughout the entire state of Tennessee. And, in response to the concerns of many, Buck Dozier (the newest manager of the fair grounds and event) have done a great job cleaning things up, ending beer concessions, and moving to a new midway company which seemed to offer a more professional product.
One downside to the event is the way that ticketing is handled. For several years its been the practice for Kroger to sell wristbands that would all unlimited rides as a reduced price. However, these wristbands have to be purchased in advance and are not highly promoted. What the fair doesn’t make clear however is that wristbands are not available for on-site purchase, even at a higher price. Once on site, tickets are sold at a fairly high price ($25 for 22 tickets with most rides requiring 3 or 4 tickets). What they also haven’t promoted is that wristbands ARE available for purchase through the fair’s website. These wristbands are sold for $29.50 (including processing fees) and are worth every penny if you are going to have a child (or yourself for that matter) want to ride more than 7 or 8 rides. In our case, we were lucky enough to meet up with an official who had her MacBook up and running and let us purchase the wristband at the site, but I wouldn’t expect this to be a regular practice, especially during peak hours, so go on-line and purchase your tickets in advance. You may want to also know that parking is free to all comers.
In many ways the TN State Fair is very predictable. The exhibits of produce, cakes and pies, and all sorts of other random stuff is at the top of a hill in the exhibit halls and sheds. Our practice is to park in the back lot (at Gate 1) closest to the sheds and walk up the hill to check out these exhibits first. You never know what vendors will be demonstrating things throughout the building, but there is always a pumpkin weigh off (this year’s winner weighed close to 2,000 pounds) and the local dairy industry has an area where free samples of ice cream, cheese, and milk are available (Anna and I especially loved the cheese!). In between the exhibit halls is a series of food vendors, including the fresh squeezed lemonade, which seems to be a specialty of the fair. It isn’t cheap (nothing is) but it’s very good and they do offer refills at a reduced cost.
One thing that our family usually bypasses is the animal barns, due to the overly sensitive olfactory nerves of our children. We did pop in for a minute this year and my sense was that they were far cleaner this year, and the smell was not as strong, although it was strong enough to lead daughter two away at a quick pace.
In between the exhibit halls and the formal midway with the rides is a series of shows and exhibits by vendors. There is a petting zoo here, but this year it is hidden in the back of the Kid’s Zone area which is in the back of the old country village display area. We rarely have the patience to wait for a show to start (you usually have to arrive early to grab a seat) but from afar they seem like a lot of fun.
Going down from the hill toward Nolensville Road is the midway, which first features all the normal food vendors, trinket salesmen, and hucksters trying to get you to spend $5 to put an 8” basketball through a 8.5” hole. After being in Jerusalem, I’ve become pretty calloused about high pressure salesmen, but just be prepared that you will have to face the gauntlet until you reach the rides.
The rides are generally focused around a large circle with the younger kid rides toward the front of the hill, and the older kid, more rambunctious rides at the far end. All of the normal suspects were there, but it seemed to me that this year there were more rides geared toward the younger crowd than the older. While we were there (between 1 and 6 p.m. on a Saturday) the lines were relatively short, and in most cases there was no waiting. This was where the wristbands were invaluable, for very often my child would exit the ride and immediately run back to the entrance to ride again. I lost count, but I think she may have ridden the caterpillar roller coaster 8 or 10 times during the day.
Scattered throughout the grounds are food vendors, with several large groupings with seating near the exhibit halls and in the midway. The offerings are varied, but it seems like most folks settle on the traditional funnel cakes, polish sausages, and of course, the lemonade.
For dinner we decided to try out one of the stands on the midway which featured a Lebanon based family, the Tuckers. This stand has the advantage of having its own seating area which is under tent, out of the way, and generally not crowded. While daughter two went for the standard hotdog and chili cheese fries, the smell of the Polish sausage wafted out of the trailer and called to me. It’s a good size sandwich, covered in grilled onions and green peppers to die for. Add some fries to the mixture (which appeared to even be possibly fresh cut) and you get a meal that fills you up and refreshes the soul as well. If you make it to the fair, check out Tuckers for they seem to be good folks and the food is great.
All in all, we had a great experience and I have no problem recommending that you take your family sometime between now and the closing on the 20th. It felt safer than in past years, was cleaner, and general is a great family experience. Expect to drop some dough along the way, but given the time that daughter two and I had today, it was money spent on something we will remember throughout our lives.
For more information on the Tennessee State Fair, visit http://www.tennesseestatefair.org/index2.asp