San Diego County Fair

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By Judy Keen, USA TODAY

Families who want cheap, close-to-home fun this summer are heading in record numbers to a pastime that dates to the 1800s: the county fair.

“The economy worked in our favor, because so many people were staying home and looking for a lot of bang for their buck,” says Linda Zweig, spokeswoman for the San Diego County Fair in California. Attendance for its 22-day run was a record 1,274,442. Previous record: 1,265,997 in 2007.

To attract budget-conscious visitors, the fair offered new discounts, including a $22 pass good for 22 days.

California’s Alameda County Fair drew a record 432,000 visitors, 87,000 more than in 2008. “I think everybody has a ‘stay-cation’ attitude this year,” says spokeswoman April Mitchell. For the first time, the fair offered a $30 pass for all 17 days.

The Alameda fair added horse races and promoted a balloon ride that had been at Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch.

As fair season nears its halfway point, the trend is likely to continue, says Marla Calico, spokeswoman for the International Association of Fairs and Exhibitions.

“In this type of economy, fairs really shine,” she says. “There may be pent-up demand because people have not taken vacations … and fairs are a good value.”

Other fairs with upticks:

• A record 158,357 people paid $5 each to visit Missouri’s Boone County Fair — a 47% increase in gate receipts compared with 2008. “I saw lots of smiles,” fair manager George Harris says.

Because of this year’s success, the 2010 fair will be extended from seven days to 10.

• The four-day East Otter Tail County Fair in Minnesota, which had charged $6, was free this year. Organizers didn’t track attendance, but office manager Jessie Steeke says “foot traffic was way up.”

• The Ottawa County Fair in Ohio, which ended Sunday, doesn’t have final numbers, but treasurer Jon Overmyer says attendance was up 10%-12% from 2008 despite rainy weather. The fair’s $5 ticket was good for expanded entertainment.

• Attendance was 132,087, up 30% from 2008, at Wisconsin’s five-day Waukesha County Fair, says executive director Shari Black. Opening-day attendance, when admission was $1 instead of $9, was the highest in the fair’s 167-year history.

“People were definitely taking advantage of deals,” Black says.

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