After 22 years at the Miami-Dade County Fair & Exposition, nothing surprises Griff Gillette.
The owner of the concession stand, Polar Bear Ice Cream, prefers to surprise customers at the Fair with his unconventional desserts -- his newest being a frozen banana dipped in chocolate and rolled in hickory smoked bacon and chocolate fudge ice cream with bacon, salted caramel and sea salt.
“People are reluctant when they first find out about what’s in the ice cream,” said Gillette, a native of Cooperstown, N.Y., who has created more than 300 homemade flavors like chicken-wing-flavored ice cream. “But nine out of 10 end up loving it once they get a sample.”
Gillette is one of hundreds of vendors and performers who are coming to The Fair, bringing new sights, tastes and sounds to a community tradition now in its 62nd year, beginning today.
Bob Hohenstein, president and CEO of the Fair & Expo, says that with over 100 rides, 130 shops and 170 food stands, there will be something for everyone throughout the 18-day event.
“We have a really good blend this year,” Hohenstein said. “Putting it all together is like building a new city.”
Fair organizers reached out to entertainment artists across several genres, hoping fairgoers from all backgrounds would find a show of interest — from Latin musicians Gocho and Matt Hunter to bands like “We Are the In Crowd” and the Kidz Bop group.
For the first time, The Zuzu African Acrobats, a Kenyan acrobatic group with a talent for pyramid building, tumbling and contortion, will perform at The Fair.
And the Miami Heat’s DJ Irie will be hyping the crowd before MMA wrestling matches.
The Fair also will feature a petting zoo, pig races and performing street artists.
“One of our goals is to delight the guests as they are walking the fairgrounds,” said Hohenstein. “But our research showed us that everyone comes to the Fair for two things, the rides and the food.”
For thrill seekers, four new rides will make their debuts: “Speed,’’ which hurls people 130 feet in the air and spins them around like a helicopter propeller; “Air Raid,’’ which flies through barrel rolls, dips and unmatched curves; “Vortex,’’ which rotates in every direction at high speeds; and “Kiddie Land Train,” which will be for the younger fairgoers, giving parents a chance to ride along with their kids.
On the food front, indulgences like Bacon Maple Funnel Cake, Krispy Kreme Burgers and chicken tenders battered and fried with frosted flakes will be making their debuts this year. For those craving seafood, the new stand Carly’s Seaside Grille will serve lobster roll sandwichs, a filet mignon sandwich and Ahi tuna over brown rice with pickled ginger and wasabi soy sauce.
“You don’t have to settle for a corn dog,” said owner Stephen Ebers, also known by the name Lobster Steve. “Have something really unique and different to eat at The Youth Fair and then go for the funnel cake.”
When all is said and done, Hohenstein, who has worked in the theme-park business for 30 years, knows the role of The Fair is an important one among families in South Florida.
The Fair showcases the works of many students across the county, from culinary cookoffs to creative writing competitions to visual and performing arts to robotic competitions to fashion shows to photo galleries.
And don’t forget the agricultural side, with cattle competitions, pig races and other 4-H events.
In addition, The Fair has donated more than $10 million in scholarships, awards and cash premiums to Miami-Dade students throughout the years.
“It’s an opportunity for moms, dads and kids from all kinds of families to get away from everyday life,” Hohenstein said. “We’re creating memories that people are going to take with them for the rest of their lives.”