The 2019 Arkansas State Fair kicks off Friday, running through Sunday, Oct. 20. At the fairgrounds along Roosevelt Road in Little Rock, rides are being assembled and game booths set up. General Manager Doug White says several new rides will be among the more than 60 rides on the midway.
Last year, six days of rain hurt attendance, he said. The fair typically averages 400,000 to 450,000 people each year. This year, White is hoping to exceed that.
"If the weather cooperates, which I’m knocking on wood right now that it will, we should have well over a half-million folks cross our doors over that 10 day period, which makes it the largest attended event in Arkansas," he said.
One fair tradition which won’t be happening this year is that there will no longer be a rodeo. Such events have become controversial with animal rights groups saying they cause injuries and pain to animals. The inclusion of a rodeo led a longtime retail partner of the fair, Walgreen’s, to stop selling tickets two years ago.
"They actually had an issue with rodeos and animals. Well we don’t have a rodeo anymore, but Walgreen’s has made a corporate decision to not do ticket outlets for fairs," White said.
The rodeo is being replaced with a monster truck show, which will be held Saturday, Oct. 19 at Barton Coliseum.
"A lot of our rodeo fans are sad about that, but there are a lot more people that are excited about monster trucks," White said.
Live music begins with an opening night show Friday by 1980s pop singer Rick Springfield. Other nights will feature alternative rock from the Gin Blossoms, R&B music from Ralph Tresvant and the Dazz Band, as well as country performers the Oak Ridge Boys and Sawyer Brown.
But White says food is the top draw.
"Fried lasagna, bacon-wrapped Twinkies, certainly not a paleo-friendly diet, but something that people can enjoy at the state fair," he said.
On Wednesday, some of the vendors who will be providing food this year offered samples of what fairgoers can expect. Guests then voted on what they considered the best tasting and most creative dishes. The standard fair offerings were served on one side of the room, with new items for this year’s fair on the other.
KUAR News intern Latosha Newman sampled some of the different foods for this report. The University of Arkansas at Little Rock student said eating the various offerings has always been one of her favorite things about the fair.
"Yes, but I don’t usually like to try anything new. I usually go for my favorites like pizza, cotton candy, a caramel apple. I might try something new, but I mostly come just for the rides," Newman said.
The first thing she tried as a fried ravioli with ricotta cheese, which could be dipped into marinara sauce.
"It’s good! But I think I’m also saying that because I love cheese-filled pasta."
Next was Ozark Candies and Nuts. Owner Jim Dobry said the company has been selling treats at the fair for the last 15 years.
"We started off as a small concession company about 20 years ago. Now we have a plant in North Little Rock where we make these two shifts every day, all year long, ship ‘em all over the country and we’ll be at the Hall of Industry all week long at the fair," Dobry said.
Newman tried what Dobry said is the company’s number one seller: salted caramel cashews.
"You can really taste the salty caramel. They’re really good,” Newman said. “They’re not too sweet. I think they’re the right amount of sweetness."
Across the room, among the new food items that will be available this year, Newman tried a pineapple twist with whipped cream, a coconut pie and fried lasagna, calling all "really good."
"It’s going to be really hard to pick and choose because they’re all so good," she said of having to decide which entries to vote for. Eventually she voted for the pineapple twist with whipped cream as the most creative item and the fried lasagna as the best tasting.
Newman wasn’t alone in being wowed by the fried lasagna from Pat’s Kitchen, which won the most votes for best tasting. The most creative award was won for a funnel cake cheeseburger prepared L&M Concessions.
White encourages people attending the fair to park their vehicles in official parking areas. He said people parking outside fair areas on front lawns led to crime and the "wrongful impression" that the fair wasn’t safe.
Tickets can be bought at the entrance to the fairgounds or online at ArkansasStateFair.com.