Wade In, Strates Out

There’s plenty to talk about as opening day of the 2014 New York State Fair approaches. The biggest story of the off-season is the contract the state has given to Wade Shows, Inc. to operate the midway, a role filled for decades by the James E. Strates Shows. Every Fair visitor and certainly every local media outlet will make comparisons and decide whether this was a good decision.

If you visit the Wade website, as we have several times, you’ll see a lot of rides and attractions that look familiar. Let’s face it, there are only so many rides available and so many ways to design the midway game joints and vendors, so it’s not unlikely that less attentive fairgoers may not even notice the change.

If your favorite ride isn’t on the lot (does Wade have a Top Spin?) you may be disappointed. Is the setup as large, as exciting, as much fun? If so, then the kids will be happy. But there are many ways to compare, so here are a few we thought of.

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Wade has already announced sale prices of all-day ride wristbands ($20 advance, $25-$30 onsite) and a mega pass that will allow unlimited rides for all 12 days for $70. If there are exclusions or rides that are frequently unavailable, these deals won’t be quite so great. We haven’t seen anything announced regarding the price one or two rides instead of buying passes. Also to be determined is the duration of rides and the length of lines to get to the most popular ones.

Wade has promised more spots to relax and recharge for families who have spent hours dashing between rides. Shaded spots out of the mainstream to take a breath and offer respite for pavement-tired feet are always welcome.

Are the games fair and exciting? Are prizes winnable and desirable? How these may differ from Strates is intriguing.

How Courteous and friendly are employees? Staff should be on their best behavior in their Empire State debut, striving to make friends and court return customers.

The overall cleanliness and freshness of the midway is important and the efficiency of the operation and the convenience of the setup matter. Leo Brannick, the Strates Shows’ lot man won’t be drawing up the floor plan this year, so Wade Shows will be relying on their own specialists. The last few years Strates laid out their rides in an X-shaped alignment that has been an improvement over the traditional oval pattern. Let’s see how well the new guys figure it out.

The midway will certainly be a State Fair Hound destination on opening day and we’ll let you know what we see there.

Water Works

The recently released New York State Fair Visitors Guide promises a new and unusual use of a famous Fair locale. The new exhibit being called History Underwater: Shipwrecks of the “Great” Great Lakes will incorporate into its presentation the reflecting pool in front of the Horticulture Building (so beautifully captured here by photographer Jude Nagurney Camwell).

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An unmanned vehicle will be guided along the bottom of the pool and a remote sensing buoy will provide real-time weather conditions. It’s all part of what promises to be a spectacular exhibit which will also include a replica of an 18th century ship.

We’ve long advocated for demolition of the pool in favor of more space in the state parks area, perhaps replaced by a smaller but more inspiring fountain, one with less water but more splash. But this year, the Fair has found a way to use it creatively and it should be fascinating to see.

Looking Good

With Syracuse Nationals weekend in the rear view mirror, final preparations are underway for the opening of the New York State Fair on Sep. 21. The car buffs’ paradise is a great tune-up, pun intended, for hosting Fair fans in what should be very substantial numbers just about a month from now when gates open for our annual favorite.

Sprucing up always includes painting, cleaning, repairing and building, and there are always a few new wrinkles that Fair regulars will notice. In recent years, there have been some great permanent changes, starting with the refurbishment of food stands along Restaurant Row. Bosco’s, P-Z-O’s, Horan’s and Danny D’s are among the longtime vendors to get new buildings in an ongoing project to improve Fair infrastructure.

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Of course there have been other positives, certainly including the stunning remodeling of the International Building. Our favorite has been the twin brick patios flanking Chevy Court (seen here in a photo by Nick LoPresti) that are both gorgeous and functional.

We’ve heard that this is the year that another patio will debut, this one in front of the International. The Hound will be out on the grounds in the coming weeks, sniffing out what’s going on in terms of infrastructure. We’ll be reporting back to let you know what’s new for this year on the grounds, so please check back often for some scoops and maybe even some photos.

Straight Tequila Night

There’s exceptional variety in the music line-up at the 2014 New York State Fair, even more now that acts for the Midway Music Series have been announced. They include one performer who should really excite our fellow fans of traditional country music. Veteran singer-songwriter John Anderson represents the integrity and passion that is missing from most of today’s country acts, including those on the Fair’s agenda.

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In addition to one of country’s classic songs, Billy Joe Shaver’s “I’m Just An Old Chunk of Coal,” Anderson has released some of the genre’s most memorable hits, including the lighthearted country-boy memoir “Swingin’” and his powerful requiem for the Everglades, “Seminole Wind.”

We saw the Fair gig on Anderson’s website weeks ago and thought for sure he was destined to play Chevy Court, where he could certainly hold his own. But a free show from a talent like him is a treat no matter where he plugs in as the rich Dixie twang in his voice perfectly balances his blue-collar poetry and hillbilly virtuosity.

The release doesn’t say whether Anderson will be playing solo or with a band, but the opening acts are two young women trying to make their mark, Logan Brill and Morgan Frazier. From the little we’ve heard of these gals, they are clearly in over their heads on this gig and we’re not inclined to feel the excitement about their performances that we do about Anderson’s. But this is clearly an opportunity for them to impress. There should be a good crowd on hand as Florida-born John Anderson is definitely a major leaguer.

Fair Warning

The announcement came Monday that the New York State Fair has contracted with Ovations Food Services of Tampa, Fl. to operate the restaurants in the Art and Home Center as well as the Center of Progress, the Horticulture Building and some mobile food carts that will be around during the Fair. It’s surprising and baffling that they would hire a firm from outside New York state, but the news is worse than that.

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Ovation is a big-business operation that runs many venues around the country including the concessions at our own NBT Stadium, home of the Syracuse Chiefs. Our boys of summer are having a great year on the field, but fans are certainly not experiencing the same satisfaction with ballpark food, which under Ovation’s management is nothing short of horrible.

We have to wonder if the Fair decision makers who chose this company have eaten their food. They’re touting a program they call “Everything Fresh” and maybe it will be better at the Fair than at NBT, but why risk it when there are so many great options on the grounds? Our advice—stick to the local vendors you know and love. You can count on them to give you a great meal at the Fair.

While on the subject of concessions, we’ll return to a topic that has caused us considerable consternation in recent years, the rules pertaining to bottled water at the Grandstand. Just a few years ago, patrons were allowed to carry a bottle of water into the Grandstand, something we did many times, never seeing it cause the slightest problem.

Then security staff decided that you could carry the water, but had to discard the cap, they said to prevent anyone throwing the bottle. Ridiculous, since it wasn’t happening. Soon after, the rule changed to bottles could not be carried in at all, so all you could do is buy it from the Grandstand vendor at a price that was more than three times what you would pay anywhere else on the grounds.

It’s a money grab, nothing more. There’s no security issue, no real problem at all. The grub in the Grandstand is sub-par and no one will buy anything from them if they have a choice, so the fans who pay good money to enter a show—let’s remember they’re Fair customers—are hit for more and more.

It won’t stop unless we protest by refusing to buy lousy, overpriced food and ridiculously expensive water at concerts while demanding better from Fair brass. We hope you’ll contact Fair administration to express your outrage. When you attend a show, chow down beforehand at one of the great stands on the grounds so you won’t be hungry and then smuggle in a drink or two. Things won’t change unless we take on this despicable status quo.

Guide Post

The moment we first get our paws on the current year’s New York State Fair Visitors Guide is a thrill. That moment arrived this week. The 12-page flyer reveals some new features and events we hadn’t heard of or seen on the Fair website and gave us plenty of reason to believe acting director Troy Waffner when he exclaims that they’ve made an “unprecedented effort to refresh the State Fair.”

In addition to the previously-announced animatronic dinosaur exhibit, there will be classic Ford Mustangs (don’t tell the Chevy Court sponsor), live wolves and a historic shipwreck display. Kids can look forward to a pogo stick stunt team and taking a spin on some mini-tractors.

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The center section of the publication hypes the rookie Wade Shows midway, promising the largest roller coaster ever at the State Fair, the world’s largest portable drop tower and two kiddielands with some new rides.

The entertainment line-up lists eight Grandstand concerts and two motorsport events. The Chevrolet Court acts include quite a few performers who haven’t played the Fair before among a widely-varied cast. Throw in the long-awaited return to the colonnade of the Wine Court—actually the Taste NY Wine, Beer and Spirits Village—and expansion of last season’s popular cow birthing center and it sounds like this year will be special for those of us who love the Fair.

This would be a good time to pick up your own visitors guide and to visit the website (nysfair.org) to begin planning how to enjoy this year’s Fair. Advance tickets are on sale, but don’t forget on Labor Day you can get in for a buck by buying a ticket at the gate. The Sep. 1 finale also features a 6 p.m. Doobie Brothers concert at Chevy Court followed by fireworks, so we’re already thinking that Labor Day 2014 could approach the day 12 record of a little over 108,000.

Hold the Shows

The public is being asked for comments on the recently-announced plan to build an amphitheater on the western shore of Onondaga Lake, adjacent to the New York State Fairgrounds, so the Hound will go ahead and air some thoughts.

We’ve long advocated for a new concert venue to replace the decrepit Grandstand with something more suitable to 21st century concerts (Venues on the Menu, Aug. 18, 2013), so we certainly applaud any move in that direction. The location, right on the lakeshore, has its plusses and minuses.

It promises to be a beautiful and impressive facility, projecting a capacity of about 17,500, which is approximately the same as the Grandstand, but with much improved sight lines and better in every way. Still, there are the legitimate environmental and public health concerns expressed by several groups, including a new coalition called Citizens for a Better Plan. If you stroll or bike the nearby trail, there are reminders of the poison deposited in the soil and the water over decades of careless and irresponsible dumping by neighboring factories. State reassurances that there won’t be health risks to visitors seem overly optimistic. Plus, there has already been disruption of wildlife habitats that can only be complicated by a new facility.

Since we’re here to advocate for optimization of the Fair, we’ll go on record as preferring construction of a venue on or adjoining the current grounds rather than in the lakeshore location. We understand that there’s limited space on the grounds for a new stage and seating, and few possibilities for expansion beyond the current grounds. The plan would be to utilize the new venue for concerts throughout the summer season, but 10 or 12 events during the Fair is still a significant number of shows.

A Fairgrounds site is still a better option, especially when you consider that the lakeshore spot won’t provide the boost to businesses on the grounds that the Grandstand has long been providing. It’s a significant disadvantage, at least in terms of impact upon the Fair itself, that shouldn’t be overlooked.

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Many fans heading for a show at the new amphitheater would likely park as close as they can and go directly to the show to avoid the lengthy, uphill hike or need for motorized transportation to get to the show from the grounds. After all, it’s a long way from the Fairgrounds proper to the new venue site and the trip requires navigating around State Fair Boulevard, I-690 and several parking lots just to get to the concert gate. After the show, in most cases, folks will head home as the Fairground turnstiles will be closed by then anyway.

Currently concert fans can’t enter or exit the Grandstand without crossing the Fairgrounds, making it tempting to stop at a food stand, buy a drink, enjoy the midway or take in any of the other exhibits or vendors. Thus, a disappointing attendance count has the compensating effect of giving a boost to the Fair by pumping a few bucks into its businesses. That will be a significant loss and is one reason we favor placing the new venue right on the grounds in spite of all obstacles.

We’d also like to see the concerts continue to be part of the excitement and buzz of attending the Fair. The neon backdrop of the midway provides a rare and beautiful ambience for concerts and the free admission that goes with ticket purchases is good for visitors while boosting attendance.

But we expect that no one is actually going to listen to the public, certainly not the governor or the county exec. Joanie probably has already figured out how she’s going to benefit her family and friends from this project, always her foremost consideration.

Photo by Herm Card

Six Weeks to Go

There are more reasons than usual to be excited anticipating the opening of the 2014 New York State Fair, now six weeks away. And the Fair has done a masterful job keeping us interested by releasing information bit-by-bit over the past few weeks. From Grandstand and Chevy Court acts to various ticket plans and deals, we’ve heard plenty to assure us that there will be new and exciting changes this year.

Of course the arrival of a new midway operator is enormous news. New Yorkers walked the Strates Shows lot for decades, but this year the Fair will debut the Wade Shows. Comments we’ve heard are widely varied, those who have actually experienced Wade elsewhere are split on opinions of whether it’s a good move. Either way, it’ll be fun to see for ourselves.

It may seem a minor point to some fans, but the return of the wine court to its traditional location on the colonnade is a major development to others. It’s a great spot for wine lovers to socialize and chill, within earshot of Chevy Court and for vendors it’s a more visible, higher-traffic location with better ambience than the alternatives. As this photo from last year shows, there’s plenty of underutilized space up there.

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But the most important reason it’s an improvement is it sends the message to Fairgoers that their opinion matters. They weren’t asked before the decision was made back in 2008 to relocate the wine tents. They complained at the time and never warmed up to any of the subsequent locations. At last it seems someone is finally listening and making a good decision, one that will likely pay off with brisk business for the wineries and good will for the Fair.
What else is new—plenty. So check back often as the State Fair Hound goes in depth on all things Fair leading up to opening day.

The Fair Buzz

We just got a press release announcing the opening of Fair advance ticket sales and trumpeting a new Labor Day promotion. In the latest innovation recently instituted, everyone attending on Labor Day–this year that’s Sep. 1—can pass through any gate for a single dollar and can pay just a buck to fly away on any of the Wade Show thrill rides.

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We don’t remember any previous New York State Fair generating as much off-season buzz as number 168, which opens Aug. 21. The anticipation and excitement levels for this year have risen exponentially, which some may find surprising in the wake of the April 14 announcement that the search for a new director has been suspended. The Hound, however, is not surprised in the least because we have had the pleasure of working with the acting director, Troy Waffner, for several years.

As we suggested in our Oct. 5 post entitled Help Wanted, Waffner merits consideration for appointment as the permanent director and we’re hoping that this year will be an audition to give him the opportunity to prove himself in the top spot after serving as assistant director since 2010.

When it comes to our favorite event, you never know when to credit or blame the director for what happens out there since there’s a whole bureaucracy that is involved, including the commissioner of agriculture and markets all the way up to the governor. But the developments already announced for the 2014 Fair have been really exciting. We’ll be exploring them more in the coming weeks as opening day approaches.

The above-mentioned Dollar Day specials promise to turn Labor Day, usually moderately attended, into a big day on the grounds. It’s wise to view attendance from the perspective of Fair vendors and business. If you’re doing boffo business selling to the public, you don’t care how they got there or how much they paid to attend, you’re just happy to have those customers. And as a rule, profitable vendors makes for a successful Fair, one that builds strength for coming years.
If 2014 lives up to its promises, you’d have to consider making your acting director your permanent director. Good luck, Troy.

Photo by Herm Card.

Last Look Back

Yikes! There’s less than two months until the turnstiles start rotating for the 2014 New York State Fair. Time to get busy looking ahead—but first a final look back at last year.The Hound promised 10 things we liked about New York State Fair 2013 and we deliver.

The last three things we liked:

At number eight–The presence of farm animals goes back to the origins of the Fair. Initially, that’s what it was all about, farmers bringing their wares, including livestock, to town for judging and promotional purposes. So yeah, they’ve always been there, but the way in which they’re presented is changing, making for a better experience for Fair visitors.
The cow birthing center was a tremendous success in its first season and is being expanded for next year. Year two of the Agriculture Extravaganza brought into the Coliseum on Labor Day is also a rare treat. Suggestion—an exhibit explaining and promoting organic farming and making the case that farms that emphasize humane treatment of livestock make for better products would be a nice addition.

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Our ninth thing we liked–The Midway Music Series has evolved into yet another spot with free entertainment and its popularity is growing as it presents niche acts. What a great idea to get some evening use out of the Talent Showcase stage, which had been idle after the daytime events wrapped up.

Number 10 is different for each fairgoer, but we think it’s a bonus to be able to renew acquaintances with people we see every August on the grounds, some true friends, others familiar faces that make the Fair feel like home to annual visitors. The Hound, for instance, likes to stop by the Pan African tent to get a warm Jamaican welcome from Irwin “Bongo” Hanslip. We also exchange gracious greetings with Nadir Hatem at King David’s. Regulars from ticket takers to product demonstrators, Iroquois exhibitors to performers and various crafters remind us of our long history as Fair maniacs and we love it.

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Funny how it feels as if something is missing when one of those essential people isn’t there. Last year we missed Walt Thomas, the broom maker who had passed away after SF 2012 and vendor Bob Hamley who didn’t return after many years popping corn and peddling roses. This year, it will take some getting used to with the new midway company, but it sure will be interesting to see how the new vendor works out.