By LAURA FRAZIER | The Tampa Tribune
TAMPA – Tracy Wetter shaded her eyes from the bright sunlight this morning and tried to track her daughters’ whereabouts through the windows of a funhouse at the Florida State Fair.
“There they are,” she laughed, pointing to a window with jailhouse bars where daughters Joelle, 8, Jessica, 14 and friend Racheal Long, 14, waved and shouted.
The Bradenton girls had cajoled Wetter into taking them to the fair to see their favorite hometown band in concert. We The Kings – an alternative rock and pop group named for Martha B. King Middle School in Bradenton, where its members met – put on a free concert at noon. Besides, the girls reasoned, tickets handed out last week at their school would get them in the gates for free.
“Then we had to go and spend $60 on armbands, so there you go,” Wetter said. “But … it’s OK because it’s such a beautiful day.”
The mild weather sat well with fair officials, who hoped the burst of sunshine would boost attendance numbers. Those numbers were down about 7 percent from last year before today’s totals are tallied.
Thousands of students and their families were expected to attend the last day of the fair today, designated as free admission day for schools in Pinellas, Polk, Manatee and Sarasota counties. Student day for Hillsborough County schools was Feb. 6.
Fair officials hope that by the time the gates close around 9 p.m. tonight, attendance will reach close to last year’s total of 491,000.
“Today is shaping up to be a great day, so we should be in the 450,000 or 475,000 range,” said Charles Pesano, executive director of the Florida State Fair Authority.
He said the authority hoped that even in tough economic times, most of the families who make the fair an annual tradition would still pay a visit for its “very good entertainment value.”
“It’s not just rides and food,” Pesano said. “There are dozens of shows and other events that are part of the admission price.”
Clearwater residents Barbara and Roy Morgan, Jean Carden and Barbara Landy came for the free shows.
The seniors fumbled with a fairgrounds map in the shade of the Freak Out ride.
Morgan intended to rent a motorized wheelchair for his wife, who uses a cane.
“They wanted $40 for a wheelchair, so forget it,” Barbara Morgan said. “But other than that, it’s a big, beautiful, clean fair. And it’s a beautiful day.”
“We all wish we were younger so we could go on some of the rides,” Jean Carden said.