A 70-foot-tall pendulum ride looping 360 degrees and a big top circus will be among the new attractions joining much loved favorites at this year’s 150-year-old South Carolina State Fair. An estimated half million visitors are expected to attend the 12-day celebration.
The excitement starts in October when riding down Rosewood Drive and seeing the rides being assembled. That “fair is in the air” feeling wafts in the scent of elephant ears and sausage dogs upon entering the fair gates. It may seem as if it all just magically appears, but this well-oiled, fully orchestrated event takes years to plan and a team of people who just cannot get enough.
“For many, fair time is ‘family reunion’ time, and that is exactly what it feels like to me,” says Nancy Smith, general manager of the South Carolina State Fair. “We ‘fair folks’ are bound by a particular cord that even I have not quite figured out. All I can tell you is that, once it is in your blood, it never leaves.”
Perhaps that is why many members of the state fair team have been involved for years and even generations in some cases. The history of family and deep tradition has played a large role in molding today’s fair into the annual event and attraction it has become.
North American Midway Entertainment, which provides the S.C. State Fair with 60 rides, 60 mixed games of skill, and 20 food stands each year, starts developing marketing plans in March. As the summer progresses, it shares formulas with the South Carolina State Fair as to its product offering, layouts, and cooperative programming. By the end of August, the planning stage is complete. The Midway team starts its move in 10 days prior to the event.
“We have well more than 200 rides in our arsenal,” says Scooter Korek, vice president of client relations at North American Midway Entertainment. “With this massive inventory, we can switch rides between units and fairs, which keeps our products new, fresh, and exciting. We also search the world for new rides, which we are constantly purchasing. And we have an in-house team of skilled ride refurbishment professionals who take our classic rides and return them to brand-new shape.”
This year guests of the South Carolina State Fair will find a thrilling new ride called The Star Dancer, which delivers an over-the-top spinning motion. As the Star Dancer’s claw begins to spin, the giant pendulum swings back and forth gaining momentum with each swing until it loops all the way around 360 degrees, reaching heights of more than 70 feet. The ride delivers a state-of-the-art light package and high-ride capacity of 16 seats per ride.
Perhaps guests will want to visit the food stations after taking a trip on the wild rides as opposed to before. The food, as always, is plentiful at the fair. To some, it is the main reason for attending. What guests may not know is the rich tradition that goes into many of the succulent recipes. For Vicki and Louie Pacifico, providing concessions to fairs around the country is a way of life. Vicki’s father made his sausage on-site at the fairs they attended, delivering the freshest ingredients to excited waiting customers. While the family does not make the sausage on-site anymore, they have stayed true to its recipe. The majority of the food the Pacifico family serves in their concession stands is prepared from family recipes, from the sausage to the dough for the elephant ears, batter for the funnel cakes, and corn dogs. This year they will once again feature their dilly dilly corn dog, a very popular item last year, which consists of a hot dog inside of a pickle, dipped in homemade corn dog batter and fried. While they are happy to try something new and fun each year, the real focus is on delivering the highest quality, freshest food to guests, not creating the most shocking treats.
For the Pacificos, the fair life has become a family tradition. Vicki and Louie’s daughter, Nichole Collmer, and Ryan, her husband, are also a part of the team. Together, the family runs the concessions and manages the employees of their stands. In addition to the South Carolina State Fair, their family is involved in 15 other fairs around the country, but South Carolina’s is one of their favorites. “South Carolina has one of the best fairs in the country,” says Louie. “The management of the state fair and the fair board are extremely involved and really care about making the fair great not only for the consumer but also for the people working there. We have seen that approach grow every year. The South Carolina State Fair is modern, efficient, and very pristine.”
That family tradition of delivering delicious food to fairgoers also stands true for Cliff Daley, the owner and manager of Daley’s Concessions/Daley’s Dogs, a third generation, family-owned food service business. Cliff’s family has been involved with the South Carolina State Fair since 1962, when they started selling hot dogs and their now-famous hand-dipped corn dog. Cliff grew up in Columbia. His parents started the business, and now he; his wife, Kim; and many family members run the popular concessions stand. “We take pride in being from Columbia,” says Cliff. “It’s like a reunion around our concessions during the fair as many people unite from school and growing up together. It truly is a pleasure to be a food vendor at such a premier event.”
This year part of the grand event will be under the big top. A tent from the famed Italian Bellucci Circus will mark the spot for the show, which features three live performances daily, including high-wire artists, daredevil motorists, show camels, and more. Seating for 1,300 people is available at each performance, which is free with fair admission. “We wanted to add value to the fair for our 150th and bring something new that everyone would remember,” says Nancy. “Who would not remember the circus?”
The South Carolina State Fair team, considered a leader in the industry, maintains access to the latest in fair trends and advances through membership in the International Association of Fairs and Expositions. “One aspect of our industry that is most attractive to me is that we are not in competition with each other but only serve to learn from each other. This could be a lesson for many,” says Nancy. “We constantly share ideas, challenges, tragedies, successes, and more. What works for one just may work for another.”
A growing challenge and intense focus for all organizations is the continued safety of the consumer. The team at the South Carolina State Fair is constantly evolving its security procedures to react to the changing times and current information. “We use metal detectors, hand wands, crowd control, sheriff’s deputies, mounted patrol, K9s, observation posts, highway patrol, and other means to keep our guests safe,” says Matt LaSchuma, the fair’s director of safety. “We have policies in place to protect our visitors and keep the safe family environment that we strive for without becoming South Carolina’s babysitter for the night.”
Working at the fair is a family tradition for Matt, who has been involved with the organization for more than 21 years. He started working with his father, John, who is currently the fair’s admissions superintendent and has been with the organization for 44 years. “My father, mother, sister, niece, and cousins have all worked at the fair,” adds Matt. “It hasn’t felt like work yet. Prior to joining the staff full time, I would take my vacation and come to work the fair. I did this when I was in the military and when I was living in other states.”
A longstanding attachment to this fair keeps families involved. “The overall pleasure of providing a fantastic atmosphere for adults and children alike, where they can enjoy the exhibits, games, and entertainment, has kept me involved and interested all this time,” adds John.
It is important to note that the South Carolina State Fair is not state supported. It is a 501(c)3 organization with a mission focused on education and agriculture. “For a few years, we have received some tax monies from the city of Columbia,” says Nancy. “This year we are to receive $19,500.” The fair staff also remains committed to giving back to students in the state. Each year the fair awards $300,000 in scholarships to graduating seniors attending in-state schools or universities. In the application, students are asked what they think of when they hear the words “South Carolina State Fair.” The responses to this question validate the staff’s mission and underlying commitment to delivering an experience that is steeped in tradition and custom while providing an unforgettable experience for families and friends.
None of this great work would be possible without the immense behind-the-scenes effort of the team that is in place. The staff grows from 21 full-time employees during the year to approximately 600 employees during fair time. For the team at North American Midway Entertainment who support the state fair, they are in essence a traveling city of 450 people. They provide living accommodations, eating establishments, complete administration services, transportation, and electrical supplies, in addition to other services. “The only outside supply we need is water,” says Scooter. “The rest we provide or generate ourselves. We are pretty proud of what we do and how we do it.”
Without question, the South Carolina State Fair instills a sense of pride in its guests as well. Each year the team and its partners continue to delight guests, providing an opportunity to step away from school, work, and all of life’s demands and instead simply focus on having fun.
It is these moments, these memories, and maybe the fried Oreos, that keep South Carolinians coming back, year after year, while the ever-present rocket keeps the fair top of mind.