Ultimate guide to the California State Fair

SN&R’s resident authority shares years of expertise on meat smoothies, neck tattoos, the midway and goat mountain


I’ll admit it: I’m obsessed with the baby animals. I’ve been going to the California State Fair faithfully every summer since 1995, and during that time, I’ve snapped hundreds (OK, thousands) of pictures of tiny piglets, palm-sized chicks, gangly foals, and doe-eyed calves and kids.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

My state fair experience may center around the baby animals, but it starts the very second I buy a ticket and pass through the gates into the Cal Expo fairgrounds, where it’s been held since 1968 (previous locations include Midtown and Stockton Boulevard).

If you’re new to the fair, it can be an overwhelming experience. If you’re a vet but still don’t quite get its charms, it can be overwhelming and confusing.

The fair requires determination, energy and an endless appetite for all things cute, weird and edible. It also demands strategy and an understanding of the lay of the land. Arrive early, wear comfortable shoes, bring a camera and follow this guide from A to Z.

“A” is for animals, baby or otherwise

Make your first fair stop an animal-related one, whether it’s “The Farm,” an outdoor nursery of just-born critters, or the Livestock Pavilion, filled with cows, goats, sheep and bunnies. All of this cuteness acts as a protective shield against some of the less-than-adorable sights you’ll encounter later in the day.

“B” is for beer garden

Here’s the thing: The prices are sky-high, and the selection is OK, but not amazing. But, located in a cool thicket of trees, the beer garden usually isn’t crowded. It’s the best place to enjoy a leisurely meal, and sometimes, if you’re extra nice, the server will let you a sample the beer before you buy.

“C” is for carnies

Stroll through the midway and take a good look at these workers who make the fair circuit every year. There’s been some serious hard living going on, but the fast-paced banter they throw out is endlessly entertaining. Keep your cash stashed and skip the games, though (see also “R” is for rip-off).

“D” is for deep-fried

Repeat after me: No. Deep. Fried. Twinkies. No deep-fried candy, no deep-fried zucchini, no deep-fried Oreos. Wolf them down, and I guarantee they’ll come back to haunt you in the worst ways possible.

“E” is for entertainment

The fair has tons of free entertainment if you turn the experience into a game: Count the Ozzy Osbourne T-shirts or number of neck tattoos. Reward the person who spots the best mullet; keep score on the flag shirts.

“F” is for fashion

Acid-washed, rompers, head-to-toe leather, cleavage, muscle shirts, short shorts, micro-miniskirts. Enjoy.

“G” is for goat mountain

This is exactly what it sounds like: a pen full of goats climbing all over each other to assert dominance. Endless fun.

“H” is for hot

Duh. Wear sunscreen and hydrate. There are water vendors throughout the fairgrounds who will let you fill up your bottle for free, as long it doesn’t sport a competitor’s label (hint: Rip it off before you refill).

“I” is for interpretative dance

It doesn’t even matter if you’re a Rick Springfield, Slaughter or Martina McBride fan: Hang out and listen to the free concerts, but keep your eyes on the interpretative dancers—the more drunk or stoned, the better.

“J” is for just desserts

Remember a sugar rush equals an inevitable sugar crash, so desserts are best eaten throughout the day and spaced by at least an hour apart.

“K” is for khakis

This is how you will recognize the attendant dressed in regulation pants and armed with a camera to take your photo immediately after you buy your ticket and enter the fairgrounds. While the initial reaction will likely be to shoo that person away, go ahead and smile for the camera. Afterward, he or she will hand you a card with a code on it so you can check out the photo online.

“L” is for lunch, in many parts

Consider the fair a sport, and you’re the athlete who wants to dominate it. Fuel up accordingly with several, athlete-appropriate mini-meals, such as pita bread and hummus, bean tacos, and fresh, roasted corn. (See also “D” is for deep-fried.)

“M” is for midway

Home of the best people watching, hands down. Save it for the end of the evening, when the rides’ neon signs light up the sky. Beware of hormonal teens roaming in packs, impatient stroller-wielding dads and aggressive game operators. (See also “C” is for carnies.)

“N” is for natural resources

Stop by the California Forest Center for free tree seedlings.

“O” is for oops

Which is what you’ll say after you fork over the cash for an ice-cream cone filled with animal feed and promptly become victim to a rude and hungry goat.

“P” is for photo booth

A cheap but memorable way to commemorate your day. The general rule of thumb is this: Everyone looks better in black-and-white, and be prepared for your friends to crash at least one of the frames.

“Q” is for quiet

The best place to escape the chaos is at the very top of the Ferris wheel when it pauses. Enjoy the relative calm, and take in the balmy summer evening.

“R” is for rip-off

In other words, avoid the midway games such as the ringtoss or darts—that is, unless you like spending $20 for a cheap, stuffed SpongeBob SquarePants doll.

“S” is for Smokey’s camp

Camp Smokey is an interactive series of stations designed to teach kids how to avoid forest fires through a series of demonstrations. The goal is to earn five stamps and, ultimately, a “Smokey the Bear” award. Allegedly open only to children 12 and under, but we’ve, um, heard that they’ll bend the rules for really nice adults, too.

“T” is for tasting

Hungry but broke? Seek out the free food samples, including—but not limited to—gourmet candies, bread and specialty dips. Learn from my mistakes, however, and make sure you know what you’re sampling before you put it in your mouth. Meat smoothie? Blech.

“U” is for under the influence

Of a hypnotist, that is. For years, Terry Stokes has been the fair’s resident hypnotist, using outdated Miss Piggy and Taco Bell Chihuahua jokes to get people to do really stupid things. This season, Suzy Haner takes on the job and steps up the game by adding singing to the show. Whatever—just make sure you get people to do really stupid things, OK?

“V” is for vendors

Check out the Shopper’s Expo for a free shoe polish, shoulder massage or food tasting (be careful—see also “T” is for tasting). Whatever you do, however, do not stop to fill out a contest entry form: That’s a guaranteed half-hour lost to a hard sell by an enthusiastic vendor.

“W” is for Wetnaps

Bring them.

“X” is for Xtreme Zone

Home to daily freestyle motocross exhibits. Bud Light optional.

“Y” is for yuck

Baby animals are cute but not always sanitary: Take advantage of the free hand-sanitizer pumps located throughout the animal exhibits.

“Z” is for the Zipper

Maybe you’re the adventurous type. Maybe you like crazy rides. Maybe you’ve got a stronger stomach than I do. The one and only time I got crazy and boarded the Zipper, my stomach got so upset, it literally shut down the fun. Rider beware.