Thinking Big

The full entertainment agenda for the 2014 New York State Fair should be posted on the website any day, but already we’ve seen an exciting trend toward staging of some potential blockbuster sideshows. We mentioned the Great Lakes shipwrecks exhibit in our July 22 post, Water Works, and there are several more.

The When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth attraction sounds like a winner with gigantic mechanical lizards that move and roar. The visitors guide promises that they’re very lifelike, making this an exhibit that will enthrall kids while also entertaining parents. No sponsor was revealed, but doesn’t Dinosaur Bar-B-Que seem like a natural for this one?

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Several wild animal acts are perennial favorites, particularly the sea lions (photo by Nick LoPresti) and the birds of prey—no announcement yet on their potential return—and this year’s new act can’t miss with powerful stars that are cousins to our beloved companion, the dog. They’re wild wolves that will perform for fans. The description says visitors will be able to get into the pen with the wolves as they are being fed. Sounds risky, but we trust the trainers to know what they’re doing.

We generally disdain the concept of wild animals being used for entertainment, but we’re hoping that this show prompts fairgoers to get involved with protecting wild wolves, one of nature’s awe-inspiring creatures, from the knuckleheads who fear or hunt them. A more long range aspiration would be for the Fair to become a leader in avoiding wild animal acts in most circumstances.

Two big hits that debuted last year– the cow birthing center and the State Fair History exhibit–are back and bigger. The State Fair Hound is always psyched by the approach of our favorite event, but this year is shaping up as something special.

Chevy Cruise

Two shows remain to be filled on the Chevrolet Court schedule at the 2104 New York State Fair, but already it’s notable for the variety it engenders. Past Fairs have proven that you never know for sure who will be the blockbuster acts on the bill, but this year it may be harder than usual.

We’ve heard that Bowser’s Rock’n’Roll Party (Aug. 26) is returning due to popular demand, so expect a nice senior day crowd for that nostalgia fest. We’d also expect to see Southside Johnny (Aug. 29), Jason Derulo (Aug. 22) Phillip Phillips (Aug. 31) and the Eli Young Band (Aug. 28) to draw well.

Anne Burrell (Aug. 27 ) is this year’s celebrity chef, having campaigned for the gig as a Central New York native and there are some offbeat choices, the Bacon Brothers (Aug. 23) and MKTO (Aug. 31) among them.

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Pending the announcement of the final two acts, one each for Aug. 23 and Aug. 24, the lineup is light on ethnic diversity as Derulo (pictured here in a photo from his website) is African-American as are the three members of Bell Biv Devoe (Aug. 30) and one of the duo MKTO. Bowser will likely introduce some African-American acts as part of his show.

We certainly understand that booking for the Fair is a complicated process and that you are limited by many factors in filling the bill. We also know that the Fair front office is staffed by hard-working people with integrity. Still, we’re a little uncomfortable with the ratio of acts that represent ethnic diversity. There are two shows left to book, so we’re hoping for movement in that direction.

The full schedule of shows at Chevy Court, the Grandstand, the Midway Music Series and the Regional Artists Stage are on the Fair website, nysfair.org.

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.