Nostalgia, excitement grip opening-day visitors at San Diego County Fair
The annual event continues through July 4 at the Del Mar Fairgrounds
The weather was gloomy and gray, but smiles were bright and spirits high as hundreds of people lined up Wednesday morning outside the gates for opening day at the 2023 San Diego County Fair.
“I can’t wait for the fair,” lifelong Del Mar resident Cassie Youngborg told her friend Nancy Bonnafoux of Encinitas. “I love the people, the sounds, the smells.”
Youngborg, 75, sported a fresh flower lei and a peach-colored, official county fair T-shirt from a prior fair season. She’s been coming to the fair for decades, and when she was in her 20s, she used to work at a fair ice cream booth. Much has changed — ice cream at the fair no longer costs $1 — but she still loves coming.
Her goal on Day 1? “Eat nachos!” and then see if Beth Van Voxtel, an avid rose grower she’s known since Voxtel was a baby, had won any first-place ribbons.
Youngborg’s friend Bonnafoux, a former Del Mar Heights Elementary School teacher, said she wanted to see the student artwork and maybe drop by the Plant Grow Eat program where elementary school kids from around the region bring the plants they’ve grown to earn free admission to the fair.
Bonnafoux can recall taking her kindergarten students to the fair staring in 1970. At one point, she was a judge in the Plant Grow Eat program, and she also once worked in the fair’s Home Made area, back when its employees were required to wear costumes matching the fair’s annual theme.
“There’s so much good here,” Bonnafoux as she listed off the many areas of the fair that she enjoys. “It really is a wonderful place.”
Bonnafoux and Youngborg were lined up in the fair’s special admission ticket area, but the folks at the front of the general admission line in were equally upbeat.
The guy who arrived first — just before 10 a.m. for the fair’s 11 a.m. opening — seemed stunned that there was no one in front of him. He declared that he was a “low-profile, behind-the-scenes kind of guy” and handed over the honor of being first to someone who arrived a few minutes later.
That “honorary,” first-in-line designee, Celeste (Irvine) Damron, easily had the credentials to net the title. She’s been coming to the fair since she was 5 years old and has many fond memories of working at the fair’s Hot Dog on a Stick booth as a teen. Her twin sister, Cecile Irvine, also tied for first place in the 1969 Fairest of the Fair beauty competition.
“I have memories of this place like you wouldn’t believe,” Damron told the people standing near her in line. She recalled how she and other food vendors got free food from each others’ booths late at night and how they would go to beach each day before starting their late-night work shifts.
Hot Dog on a Stick was the best job ever, Damron said. They got paid, they got free soda and good quality hot dogs, and every 30 minutes or so they would get a break to walk around the fair for a while.
Fair attendees weren’t the only ones in a nostalgic mood Wednesday morning. San Diego County Fair board members spoke enthusiastically at the opening ceremonies by the main gate, where they cut the big red ribbon and watched the Hilltop High School band perform.
Board vice president Frederick Schenk said he had attended the fair for more than 40 years.
“This is really a joy to see everybody out here,” he told a reporter.
Schenk said that in past years he has worn costumes to greet fair visitors. He was the Cowardly Lion during the “Wizard of Oz”-themed year and the Monopoly mayor during the games-themed year. But he drew the line this year when they asked him to wear a chipmunk costume in honor of the outdoors-oriented “Get Out There” theme. He said he didn’t have the right sort of voice to be a good chipmunk.
But other board members and fair employees were definitely in the spirit for “Get Out There.” Carlene Moore, CEO of the Del Mar Fairgrounds, wore earrings with little camper trailers on them. Her fingernails were orange in honor of the fair’s colors this year.
The “Get Out There” theme exhibit celebrates local flora, fauna, trails and ecosystems. Fairgoers can tour a 20,000-square-foot themed exhibit, attend a daily lumberjack show and visit a s’mores campfire cooking area.
“We really do believe this is going to be the best fair yet,” said Moore, mentioning the nine new food booths, two new rides and the much-requested extra seating areas that have been added throughout the fairgrounds.
Fair board president Joyce Rowland summed up everyone’s feelings about the fair by saying people look forward to the arrival of the fair’s opening day all year because it’s symbolic. She said it means that “summer has truly arrived in San Diego County.”
San Diego County Fair
When: Continues 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: 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 get in 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 once again offering its Fair Tripper package. 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
Henry is a freelance writer.
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