Pam Kragen is the arts and entertainment editor, as well as the chief theater, dining and opera critic, for the San Diego Union-Tribune. She joined the Union-Tribune staff in October 2012 after 27 years at the North County Times, where she served as the Arts & Features Editor, as well as the paper’s longtime arts writer and theater and opera critic. She is the co-founder of the San Diego Theatre Critics Circle. She holds a bachelor of arts degree in journalism from San Diego State University and completed fellowships in theater criticism at the University of Southern California and opera-classical music criticism at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. And in 2022, she was chosen as one of the fellows in the prestigious National Critics Institute, run by the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterf, Conn.
This year’s ‘cashless’ fair will have a 21-day run and tiered ticket pricing ranging from $12 to $20, with family pricing on Fridays
For many San Diegans, summer doesn’t officially begin until the San Diego County Fair arrives with its deep-fried Oreos, grandstand concerts, gadget hawkers and racing pigs.
This year’s fair got under way on June 7 at the Del Mar Fairgrounds for a 21-day run that concludes July 4. This year’s fair run is one day longer than the 2022 outing, which followed a two-year pandemic break, but it’s still six days shorter than in 2019.
Fair officials say this year’s fair will feature 115 food and drink purveyors and 260 commercial vendors. That’s five more food vendors than last year, but 20 fewer merchants.
One of the most important new things for fairgoers to remember this year is to bring your credit card. The fair has gone to a cashless system for its parking, admission, carnival games and rides. For those who show up with cash only, there will be “cash to credit” ATMs at the fairgrounds where users can insert cash to buy debit cards, though there will be a service fee and the cards can take up to five minutes to activate.
Train, helmed by Pete Monahan, opens the fair’s entertainment schedule on Wednesday and fireworks close it down on July 4
Here’s an overview of this year’s San Diego County Fair including what’s new, what’s returning and ways to save money.
This year’s fair theme is Get Out There, which celebrates San Diego County’s parks, trails, ecosystems, wildlife and outdoor activities. The Get Out There Exhibit is being constructed inside the 20,000-square-foot Activity Center at the fair’s main entrance. Inside, visitors will be able to follow the footprints left by wildlife through each of San Diego County’s diverse ecosystems to discover flora and fauna native to each area. There will be live animal encounter shows on birds, bats, reptiles and insects. There will also be nature crafts, campfire ghost stories and tales from Palomar Mountain. Information will be available on trail safety, wilderness survival, habitat conservation and much more. As a tie-in to this year’s themed exhibit, the fair is inviting San Diegans to submit photos of themselves enjoying the county’s natural wonders. Participants can have their pictures featured on the fair’s social media and receive a free participation button. One winner will receive a $500 gift card to Dick’s Sporting Goods, among other prizes. Find out more at sdfair.com/p/participate/got-challenge.
New foods at the fair
Fair vendors work to outdo each other with new food items each year, and nobody works harder than San Diego’s Charlie Boghosian, who prefers the nickname “Chicken Charlie.” He spends four months each year working county fairs from San Diego to Fresno and the other eight months coming up with new food items. In keeping with the Get Out There theme of this year’s fair, he has created a deep-fried s’mores on a stick, made with jumbo marshmallows, graham cracker crumbs and chocolate sauce. He’s also introducing Flamin’ Hot Cheetos potstickers. He’s also bringing back from 2022 his deep-fried bacon-wrapped pickles, deep-fried frog legs and the oversize baby bottles filled with Kool-Aid (which are $20 to buy but refills are just $1). San Diego’s Original Fish & Chips is introducing a coconut shrimp platter for $15. And Mom’s Bake Shoppe has created s’mores parfait that layers 50/50 brownie cookies with marshmallow fluff.
In-person tickets return
Fair tickets are now on sale. Unlike last year, when COVID safety rules limited ticket sales to online-only purchases, fairgoers this year can buy their tickets either online or in person. On high-volume days, like weekends and July 3 and 4, online purchases are strongly encouraged because fair officials are capping daily attendance at 60,000 a day, so sellouts may occur.
The annual youth livestock shows and auction have been all or partially off-limits to fairgoers since 2020, but they’re back and open to all this year. Market cows, hogs, sheep, swine, goats and rabbits will be judged June 18-23 with auction and showmanship awards events June 23-24. The open and youth small animal shows run continuously throughout the fair run. Pigeons shows are June 8-11; rabbits, June 14-18; cavies (guinea pigs), June 21-23; and poultry, July 1-3. The small animal master showmanship awards event is on July 4.
The fair’s most popular animal attraction — Swifty Swine Racing Pigs — returns to the Durante area bleachers for daily contests, featuring 5-week-old piglets taking a speedy lap around a mini racetrack for the reward of an Oreo cookie at the finish line. The pigs race multiple times a day; check online or at the fair information booths for the schedule.
In addition to the animal presentations inside the Get Out There theme exhibit and the livestock and small animals shows, there are many other ways fairgoers can interact with animals at the fairgrounds. The California Grown exhibit will feature the Great American Petting Farm, live alpacas, goat- and camel-milking demonstrations and the Sky River Butterfly Farms. The ever-popular Extreme Dogs show will be presented three times a day in the Family Funville area. The Charity Fair Horse Show will be presented on June 7-10 in the Del Mar Arena.
New vegan restaurant
Responding to growing demand for healthier food options at the fair, Wicked Kitchen will take over the fairgrounds’ 17 Hands Restaurant & Bar for the run of the fair. It’s the fair’s first fully plant-based restaurant. The Anaheim company has become a leading provider of plant-based food items for sports arenas, conventions and other large-scale events around the world. The menu at Wicked Kitchen includes the AmazeBao sandwich made with pea proteins; a meatball pasta; “McFish” sandwich; spicy taco with jalapeno patty; vegetable side dishes; and packaged ice cream bars made with lupin legumes. Wicked Kitchen, offering grab-and-go service, will be located on the Plaza de Panama overlooking the Paddock Green.
Hidden speakeasy bars
Every year, the fair hosts a hidden speakeasy bar somewhere within the multistory Grandstand building. This year, it’s offering two. The Secret Stache Speakeasy, which is being introduced this year, has a Prohibition-era theme. It will be open from noon to 7:30 p.m. daily. To start your journey to find the hidden Stache bar, visit the Shave and Haircut booth at the Arena Gate to get the password and a wristband to enter. Secret Stache will have six cocktails and four martinis, all named after different styles of moustaches. The Secret Stache signature drink is the Smoky Walrus Manhattan, a gin cocktail smoked with cherry wood chips, and there will be an espresso martini called the Milk Moustache. The second speakeasy, Destination Unknown, is a returnee from the 2022 fair. It has tropical jungle theme and specializes in tiki drinks. Check in at the Safari Tours ticket window inside the Turf Club courtyard for directions to this rooftop bar. It’s open daily from 3 p.m. to close. Both speakeasies are restricted to ages 21 and up.
New food booths
Fair food is priority No. 1 for many visitors, and this year there will be seven new food booths to try: Boba King; the Coconut Guy; Greek Grill; Cheesy Chef; In Your Face Pies; Funnel of Love; and S’Mores ‘n More. Gina Lockaby is the founder of In Your Face Pies and Cheesy Chef. Lockaby’s pie booth offers a variety of baked fruit pies, chicken pot pie and vegetable pie as well as chocolate and s’mores pies, all made from scratch. The booth can be found in Plaza de Mexico. Lockaby’s Cheesy Chef, located on the Infield, will serve grilled-cheese sandwiches, cheese balls, cheese curds and 1-pound mozzarella sticks. Another newcomer is Coconut Guy, run by husband and wife Dustin and Rachael Ryen, who sells fresh cut coconuts with a straw to sip the cool coconut water. And if you’re the sort of fair visitor who likes to sample as many new food items as possible, invest in a Passport to Savings coupon book just inside the O’Brien Gate. The $5 green booklet has 100 coupons for discounts totaling more than $1,000 on food, rides, shopping and attractions.
New merchandise vendors
If shopping inside and around Bing Crosby Hall, Exhibit Hall and the Seaside Pavilion is the highlight of your year, there are eight new merchandise sellers to check out at the fair this year. They are: Glittery; Funny Bricks; Mineral-based Nail Powder; Juci Roots; Gnome Hollow Candle & Soap Co.; We Have Your Flag; Synergy Glow Orb and Bluetooth Speaker; and Guardian Solar Lighting System. Glittery, owned by Denise Warner of Sacramento, is making its first appearance in 30 years at the San Diego County Fair. She sells her own brand of glitter makeup and edible glitter (food-grade mica) that can be swirled into cocktails, and she’s doing glitter face makeup on site.
This year’s Fun Zone will feature two new thrill rides. Medusa is a tummy-twister themed around the mythical snake-haired gorgon who could turn men to stone when they looked in her eyes. Joker 360 is a swinging pendulum ride that does a full 360-degree revolution. Fair visitors who plan to enjoy a lot of Fun Zone rides can get steep discounts if they order their multi-ride Blast Pass in advance on the fair website. Passes purchased before Tuesday will get a 25 percent bonus of ride and game credits. Pepsi is also selling “pay one price” wristbands for $45. Wristband-bearers get unlimited rides between 11 a.m. and 8 p.m. on Wednesdays and Thursdays only. Fair admission is not included. For details and advance purchase, visit sdfair.com/p/plan-your-visit/tickets-deals/rides-games
Got a big family? The best days to visit the fair this year are Fridays. Children 12 and under get in free on Fridays, and kids 5 and under are free every day. Sundays are still billed as Dia de la Familia (family days), because of the family-friendly Mexican entertainment offered on the grandstand those evenings, La Adictiva on June 11, Grupo Bronco on June 18 and Los Tigres del Norte on June 25. Northgate Market locations in San Diego County are now offering shoppers a special promotional code that can be used on the fair’s website to save $10 on Dia de la Familia concert tickets (which include fair admission).
Culture & music festivals
This year’s fair will feature several free daylong festivals, all at the Chevrolet Paddock Stage. All day June 10, “Out at the Fair” will feature LGBTQ+ entertainment, activities, services and more. From 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. June 11, the Bluegrass Festival will take place. The Asian & Pacific Islander Festival, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. June 17, will feature dance, music and martial arts demonstrations. And the 17th annual Gospel Festival takes place from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. June 24 at both the Chevrolet Paddock and Coors Light Avenue stages. sdfair.com/events/festivals-events
Wine, beer & spirits events
The fair will host its annual beer, wine and distilled spirits festivals, where purveyors compete for prizes and fair visitors can purchase tasting tickets for the one-day events at the fairgrounds’ new event center, The Sound. The Toast of the Coast Wine Festival, from 1 to 4 p.m. June 17, will feature award-winning wines from dozens of California wineries. Tickets are $55 for 10 one-ounce tastings and include fair admission. The San Diego International Beer Festival & Distilled Spirits, which had more than 1,064 entries this year, will be presented from 1 to 4 p.m. July 1. Tickets are $70 for unlimited one-ounce beer tastings and a 5-tab wristband for cocktail tastings. Details for both events at sdfair.com/p/participate/entry.
New cooking contest
This year, fair concessionaires will compete for bragging rights in the Fair-Tastic Foods Competition. In keeping with the fair’s 2023 Get Out There theme, the entries will include barbecue, campfire, chilled drinks, ice cream and other sweet and savory items best enjoyed outdoors. A panel of judges led by San Diego Magazine publisher and food critic Troy Johnson will choose the winners on June 8. For a look at the finalists, visit sdfair.com/p/participate/food-contest.
All of the usual exhibits will return this year, including fine art; photography; gems, minerals and jewelry; woodworking; homemade crafts and foods; the Paul Ecke Jr. garden and flower shows; student showcase; and more.
The Burn Institute is bringing its Fire & Safety Expo and Firefighter Demolition Derby back to the fair this year from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. June 11 in the Del Mar Arena. The event will include a fire engine and truck “burn run” parade and live safety demonstrations throughout the day. The highlight will be the demolition derby, featuring vehicles the firefighters build from scratch each year. The derby consists of three competitive heats at 2, 4:45 and 5:30 p.m. The Encinitas Fire Department will be defending its 2022 title against 21 teams from 18 local fire departments.
San Diego County Fair
When: Opens Wednesday and runs through July 4. Closed Mondays and Tuesdays, except July 3 and 4. Gates open at 11 a.m. daily and close at 10 p.m., except on Fridays and Saturdays, when the gates close at 11 p.m.
Where: Del Mar Fairgrounds, 2260 Jimmy Durante Blvd., Del Mar
Tickets (in-person and online sales): Adults ages 13 to 61 are $20 on Fridays-Sundays and July 4; and $15 on Wednesdays, Thursdays and July 3. Seniors 62 and up are $17 on Fridays-Sundays and July 4, and $12 on Wednesdays, Thursdays and July 3. Youth (ages 6 to 12) are $17 on Saturdays, Sundays and July 4, $12 on Wednesdays and Thursdays and free on Fridays. Children 5 and under are always free. Albertsons and Vons supermarkets are also offering an in-store promotion for $3 off fair tickets.
Parking (online and credit card sales only): General parking at the fairgrounds’ main lots on Jimmy Durante Boulevard is $20 (look for blue and green flags). Preferred parking near the main entrance is $50 (look for orange flags). Del Mar Horsepark parking (with free shuttle service from 10 a.m. to one hour past fair closing) is $10. Offsite parking at Torrey Pines High School (with free shuttle service) is free. Uber and Lyft drop-off zones can be found in the rideshare lot on Jimmy Durante Boulevard (look for the purple flags)
Public transit: North County Transit District is offering its Fair Tripper package again this year. It includes fair admission and a round-trip ride on the Coaster, Sprinter train and MTS Trolley and a connecting bus line to the fair. The Coaster train will drop fairgoers at the Solana Beach station, where a Breeze bus will carry riders to the fair’s West Gate. Fair Tripper tickets are $20 for adults and $17 for youth on Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays and July 4; $15 for adults and $12 for youth on Wednesdays, Thursdays and July 3. gonctd.com/fairtripper
Phone: (858) 755-1161