It's Arkansas State Fair time and this year's autumn cornucopia of festivities is overflowing with frolicking sea lions, dizzy with roller coasters and giddy with goats. Not to mention mass quantities of fried everything.
"A lot goes on in 11 days," says Ralph Shoptaw, president and general manager of the fair: carnival rides, music concerts, magicians and circus acts, bull riding, animals, arts and crafts, quilts, baking contests -- and food. Lots and lots of food.
As with every year, the fair is a blending of the old and the new. There's the return of the Koolickle (Kool-aid marinated pickle) and new treats such as fried pineapple rings. Some of last year's rides and performers are back with a few additions to boot.
And it's all crammed into less than two weeks for this year's fair, the 79th edition.
BITES AND HEIGHTS
Start with what -- for many people -- is the most important part: the food.
"This fair really is a food fair," Shoptaw says.
This year they've added a few more concessionaires, including Taste This, bringing gourmet shrimp burgers and Korean wings. And Linda Chan's vegetable lo mein and egg rolls. Foodies can also seek out Frosted Flakes chicken, cheeseburger on a stick and the Dragon's Breath Ball: a liquid nitrogen ice cream ball that causes the consumer to exhale "smoke."
They're doubling down with last year's pizza on a stick -- visitors can visit two locations to get that pepperoni fix. And, of course, there will be bacon: deep fried, chocolate-dipped or wrapped around sausage.
One of the simpler but still exciting offerings this year will be the cinnamon roll, making a comeback after several years off the menu.
Even the returning concessions should have a sleeker, newer look since much of the equipment and stands have been upgraded and Shoptaw promises a "noticeable difference."
What would a fair be without spinning, plunging, and hurtling along a track at high rates of speed after getting a belly full of funnel cakes and fried bacon?
Last year was the first time North American Midway Entertainment provided the fair's carnival and it's back again this year, bringing along its full-size roller coasters and giant, 100-plus-foot-tall Ferris wheel.
"They're the largest traveling carnival company in the United States," Shoptaw says. "They bring a lot of the bigger rides that we haven't had in the past."
In addition to their epic rides, Shoptaw says, North American's way of doing business makes a noticeable difference.
"They're very professional. The midway's clean. They put up trusses across the midway and run all their wires overhead so you're not stepping over wires."
Arkansas State Fair
Opening 4 p.m. Thursday, 11 a.m. Friday-Oct. 21, Arkansas State Fairgrounds, 2600 Howard St., Little Rock
Advance admission: through Wednesday $5.99, $2.99 for children and senior citizens; Thursday-Oct. 21 $7.99 and $3.99
Gate admission: $10, children and senior citizens $5
Super Pass: $30
Ride bands: $30
Premium concert seating: $15-$20
VIP Deck seating: $25-$40
HEADLINERS, BULL RIDERS
The fair isn't all shiny, whirling rides and creative foods. Music always plays a big role and draws a crowd.
This year's fair concert series starts Friday with headliners the Charlie Daniels Band, who last played the fair six years ago, according to Shoptaw: "They're really a very popular act."
Opening for them is the up-and-coming Redhead Express.
Other acts include P.O.D., Ginuine, Joe Nichols, Blane Howard, Ratt, Stohley, Pop Evil, Mark Chestnut and Twista.
Admission to concerts is included in fair gate admission but people who want to sit closer can always get Premium Concert Seating or VIP Deck Seating tickets for $15-$20 and $25-$40, respectively.
To relive some of the musical past of the fair and Barton Coliseum, visit the Barton Rock and Roll Museum.
But not all the entertainment comes from the big-stage musical acts. The Hiland Hill area and other fairground areas will see plenty of performances every day.
Last year's Moogician is back again to do his regular "dairy related" shows and to wander around the grounds for impromptu performances in between.
Acrobats, jugglers and stilt walkers with the Arkansas Circus Arts group will also be around and Wildlife Wendy will present her trick-performing parrot pals.
The newest piece of entertainment comes from the Sea Lion Splash, performed every day starting Friday.
"I don't think Arkansas has ever had a sea lion exhibit," Shoptaw says.
For a more up-close experience with animals, there's the Exotic Animal Petting Zoo with creatures from around the world and pony rides.
Exotic animals are fun and crazy, but animals of a more domesticated variety are the real stars of the State Fair.
"We're a livestock fair," Shoptaw says. "The State Fair is our major fundraiser for the year to pay for our livestock programs."
That includes scholarships and other educational programs that promote youth involvement in agriculture.
Shoptaw estimates they have between 6,000 and 6,500 livestock entries each year. People from all over the state bring their cows, pigs, goats, sheep, rabbits and chickens to the fairgrounds to be judged and fair visitors are welcome to see the animals in their temporary homes and watch the competition.
At the AG in Action Center, children can learn more about animals and agriculture through interactive exhibit experiences.
A different way of appreciating the livestock comes with the PRCA ProRodeo, 7:30 p.m. Oct. 19-20 in Barton Coliseum, $10-$25.
The livestock competitions aren't the only contests that draw people from all over the state. The Arts & Crafts Building welcomes around 10,000 entries in a wide variety of categories. There's a wine competition and tasting, ice cream making, pie baking, flower arranging, quilts, cooking with Spam, canned goods and almost any other creative and culinary endeavor one could imagine.
Then there are the various pageants and youth talent competitions, most of which take place next week and all of which, Shoptaw says, are "very, very popular.
"There are nights you can barely get in, there are so many people there."
SAFE AND SAVE
Shoptaw points out that even at full price, the fair is a bargain. Arkansas' fair recently ranked fourth in HomeToGo's list of most affordable state fairs in the United States.
Still, people watching their pocketbooks can use a few tricks and save a few bucks.
This year's newest deal is the SuperPass, $30 for gate admission and unlimited rides. The pass is available at select Tropical Smoothie locations.
Shoptaw says, "If you're going to come and ride rides, that's a pretty good value."
A lot of people take advantage of Monday's Dollar Day with $1 admission, $1 rides and $1 parking. There are other special deals throughout, including free admission with canned good donations to the Salvation Army, 1-6 p.m. Oct. 16; and School Day at the Fair with $3 admission for school children through Grade 12 starting at 1 p.m. Oct. 19.
But another money-saving fair program has been gaining traction: Lunch at the Fair, the weekday special deal with free parking and gate admission from 11 a.m.-1 p.m.
"Our attendance has really grown," Shoptaw says. "People take advantage of that and spend the rest of their day with us."
Friday nights and throughout the day Saturday and Sunday, visitors can park for free at the state Capitol and ride a free shuttle to the fair gates. It's a good deal and convenient during the fair's busiest times.
According to Shoptaw, the parking areas at the fairgrounds have been expanded in recent years and, except for Dollar Day, parking on site is usually not a problem during the week.
Safety is on the minds of many these days, particularly at major events like the fair. Shoptaw says the entire fair staff is going through training sessions so they'll know how to respond to any situation -- from a security threat to extreme weather.
The walk-through metal detectors in place last year will be back. They'll also check bags, although they advise people to leave those at home, if possible.
Regardless of when or how people get there, Shoptaw says his team has been working hard to ensure a safe, fun experience for all ages and tastes.
With all the things to do, all the lights and noises and activities and food and crowds, a place to kick back and take a break might come in handy.
Shoptaw says, they have that too -- at the midway pavilion: "It's a nice place to go sit and just take it easy."
Style on 10/09/2018
*CORRECTION: Information about the Arkansas State Fair is available at arkansasstatefair.com and at (501) 372-8341. An incorrect telephone number was printed in a previous version of this story.
Print Headline: A carnival atmosphere: The Arkansas State Fair hits 79 and parties like a child