West Miami-Dade

Not just funnel cakes: Miami-Dade Fair puts modern spin on carnival tradition

Jordan Harris practices for the Olympic Penguin High Dive before the opening of the Miami-Dade County Fair and Exposition on Wednesday, March 11, 2015.
Jordan Harris practices for the Olympic Penguin High Dive before the opening of the Miami-Dade County Fair and Exposition on Wednesday, March 11, 2015. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

When Darwin Fuchs first went to the Miami-Dade County Fair nearly 50 years ago, he couldn’t imagine that the small neighborhood carnival would one day house a beer garden, feature recording artists on stage, showcase hundreds of food vendors and have more than 90 stomach-churning rides.

In 1967, the fair, then called the Dade County Youth Fair, was held off of North Kendall Drive and drew less than 20,000 people, had about 20 food stands and 15 to 20 rides. The merry-go-round and Ferris wheel were the highlights — a massive swing-like ride called The Screamer, new to this year’s fair, would never have crossed Fuch’s mind.

"No blood-and-guts type stuff, no beer sales, no freak shows, no demolition derbies, just clean fun," Fuchs said in a 1983 Miami Herald article, when he was the fair manager.

But Fuchs understands that times and tastes change.

“The growth has been phenomenal,” said Fuchs, who worked on the fair’s board and is now president emeritus. He also has a pavilion named after him at the fairgrounds. “It has really blossomed out.”

The Miami-Dade County Fair and Exposition, marking its 64th anniversary when it opens Thursday afternoon, is always evolving to keep up with trends and draw in diverse crowds, while keeping a balance of what makes the fair, the fair — the midway, the agriculture, the school competitions and the massive turkey legs.

In South Florida, where people come and go and tradition is hard to find, there is one thing that doesn’t change — every spring the fair arrives at Tamiami Park with its lights, rides and food.

"The fair was always something you looked forward to," said Martha K. Backer, 64, who attended as a kid and now lives in Jacksonville Beach. "It was a constant."

This year, the fair, which was once known for its squeaky-clean image, will house the largest mobile brewery in the world. The 60-tap truck is touring the country and Miami-Dade is the first stop.

“Craft beer is an experience and an explosion,” said Brett Enright, founder and president of Beer Haven. “We created this platform to showcase smaller breweries.”

People can learn about how craft beer is made through a traveling exhibit, test out different kinds of beer and buy beer-inspired products like shampoo and soap.

And if you’re feeling adventurous, some companies are brewing up their own special flavor with a fair theme. Miami Brewing Company will sell kettle corn and cotton candy beer. Three Daughters Brewing will have a caramel apple ale, and Saltwater Brewing Company will have chocolate banana beer.

Also new this year, a butterfly garden, a few new rides and a longer run: 21 days, four days longer than in past years. The petting zoo will have a zebra and a bison, as well as its usual showing of baby goats and pigs, said Jay Phillips, owner of Show-Me Safari.

“It’s growing,” he said. “It’s a lot of work but it’s all for the little children. They love it.”

For the food lovers, vendors will compete for the first time in The Foodie Awards. There will be two categories: best tasting and most unique. On Friday, chefs will walk the fairgrounds to find the winning food.

And, oh, that food. A lot of people head to the fair to stuff their faces.

Elephant ears and funnel cakes. Corn dogs and turkey legs.

And, this year, there’s even more exotic fair fare. Fairgoers can forget their arteries for a bit and try out the sticky pig on a stick — two Krispy Kreme doughnuts with strawberry custard dipped in chocolate fudge and rolled in apple wood smoked candied bacon. Or the Miami Sundae — Cuban-style roast pork, white rice, black beans, onions and plantains made to resemble an ice-cream sundae.

While price may be a concern for some, with a $12 admission not including food and rides, fair officials say there are more special offers than in the past. A canned food drive will return, benefiting the Miami Rescue Mission in exchange for $4 off the entrance.

“There are tons of deals online,” said Eloise Rodriguez, a spokeswoman for the fair.“There are so many options for them to get discounts.”

The fair drew about 600,000 people last year and Rodriguez said she expects even more this year — especially since it’ll be open for a fourth weekend.

Robert Hohenstein, president and CEO of the fair, said he’s excited to see how the calendar change affects the fair. But he said people mainly come for two reasons: food and rides.

“There’s a lot to be excited about,” he said, naming the beer haven, the longer operating calendar and new awards.

Organizers also are excited about the music, with concerts that include country artist Rodney Atkins, Christian artist Brandon Heath and Latin music performers Oscar D’Leon and Gente De Zona. Live music has been a fair staple for decades, with Juan Gabriel, Dolly Parton, Ray Charles, Cher, Jerry Lee Lewis and Miami Sound Machine taking the stage through the years.

In 1984, about 10,000 fans went to the fair to see Menudo, a Puerto Rican boy band. The band, with five singers ages 13-15, drew the fair’s biggest crowd and played for an hour and a half to screaming teenage girls.

Despite all the changes, the basics — kids and animals — are still important.

The first Youth Fair in the 1950s was a 4-H livestock exhibition held on 18 acres of land off North Kendall Drive on Southwest 97th Avenue. The purpose was to showcase the work of students, and nearly 100 students participated. Now, thousands of students from all over the county show off their art, food and creative writing skills.

Through the years, the fair has come up with new ways to get people to keep coming.

In 1969, the biggest attraction was the Batmobile.

"It created quite a stir,” Fuchs said at the time. “It had this great bat fuzz all over it."

In 1983, fairgoers braced for a 350-pound sow to deliver a litter of piglets in the animal tent.

In 1994, people came out to see the progress of Greg Glenn, expert sand sculptor, who was building a mammoth-size Neuschwanstein, the Bavarian castle of King Ludwig II.

Fuchs said seeing the fair grow through the years has been incredible.

In the coming years, he expects even more new attractions and for the crowds to keep growing.

“The fair is wholesome, family entertainment. It’s all about family and youth and families coming together,” he said. “That’s why fairs are so popular. It’s entertainment for the entire family.”

If you go

When: March 12 to April 5 (open daily except March 16-17 and 30-31). Opening day hours are 3 p.m.-midnight

Where: 10901 Coral Way

Cost of admission: $12 everyday, $6 on opening day, March 12.

Number of rides: More than 90

Price of ride tickets: P*O*P Ride Card: $28 Weekdays/$35 Weekends; 22 Coupon Sheets: $28; Express Pass: $15

For more information and exact times: visit www.fairexpo.com