Interview: How to Plan a County Fair (with Orange County Fair Director) |

This last week, we had the pleasure of chatting with Robin Wachner, Director of Communications of the OC Fair & Event Center and her fellow Communication Department members.

The Orange County Fair, also known as the OC Fair, is a 23-day annual fair that is held at the OC Fair & Event Center every summer. The Fair was first held in 1890 in Santa Ana, and included a few livestock exhibits and a horse race. Since then, it has grown to become the ninth-largest fair in the United States, and had over a million guests come last year. A few of the main highlights of the fair include the diverse food vendors, selling everything from deep fried butter to turkey legs, the annual competitions and contests, the wild rides and games, and the award winning performers who light up the stage at the Pacific Amphitheatre. The OC Fair will be held from July 13-August 12, 2012, and will be open Wednesday to Sunday.


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In this interview, Robin and her staff share their expert tips and insights in how to plan a successful county fair:

Sarah: How is the theme for the fair selected every year? For instance, why was last year’s themed “Let’s Eat!” Why is this year’s themed “Home Sweet Home?”

Robin: The theme is typically selected by the CEO and executed by the senior management team. Last year’s theme was chosen due to the popularity of Fair food and turned out to be the highest attended OC Fair to date. Home Sweet Home celebrates our Orange County history as well as the fact that the fairgrounds were not sold and the sale was cancelled in 2011.

Sarah: Which events (besides The OC Fair) does the event planning team actually plan?

Robin: In addition to the annual summer OC Fair, the team is also responsible for the New Year’s Eve Block Party and the Youth Expo Experience each year. Throughout the year, a portion of the staff is also dedicated to the onsite Centennial Farm, a four-acre demonstration farm with gardens and livestock, and its educational programs. The other 100+ events are done by outside promoters but most departments have a hand in planning these as well.

Sarah: How do you select the various food vendors for the OC Fair? Which vendors, in your opinion, offer some of the most colorful dishes?

Robin: Hundreds of applications are submitted each year to the OC Fair’s Commercial & Concessions Department and from these submissions they will select a diverse mix of food vendors in an effort to offer OC Fair goers a unique culinary experience. The most popular Fair food items have regularly been funnel cake, corn dog and deep-fried concoctions. A few vendors who are most popular either because of their uniqueness or their traditional Fair menu include: Chicken Charlie’s, Bacon A-Fair (formerly Deep-Fried Butter), Chuck Wagon BBQ and Tasti Chips.

Sarah: Can you tell me a little bit about the various contests and competitions that the OC Fair holds every year? What are some of the most popular competitions? Who judges them? And how have you created the competitions over the years?

Robin: The OC Fair’s competitive entries cover a wide range of talents and skills including baking, cooking, quilting, sewing, photography, woodworking, painting, jewelry-making, gardening and raising livestock. Each competition is judged by a panel of professionals or veterans in that field. Contests, on the contrary, are less formal and allow for Fair goers to simply have fun. These contests have no entry fees and generally happen live at the Fair and on-the-spot. Many are geared toward children with arts and crafts challenges and on Seniors Days (Friday) games just for older guests are held including grapefruit bowling.

Sarah: I noticed in addition to some well-known entertainers, the OC Fair also features a few local entertainers. How are these entertainers selected, and do you ever have repeat entertainers?

Robin: The Community Entertainment program features a variety of local talent, including children’s dance troupes, bands, ukulele players, mariachi and Polynesian dancers, martial arts demonstrations and more. Applications to perform for free as a community entertainer are due the March before each Fair. Performers are booked until all performance times are filled on the various stages. The OC Fair does also offer paid entertainment free with Fair admission like dueling pianos, comedy hypnotist and acrobats.

Sarah: How are the vendors who supply the rides and games selected? Do they all come from the same vendor? And which rides and games are some of your favorites?

Robin: Ray Cammack Shows, Inc. of Laveen, Arizona, is the OC Fair’s contracted carnival operator and has been in the fair industry for almost 50 years. They own and maintain every ride and every game offered in both the Kiddie Carnival and the Main Carnival at the OC Fair. The most popular rides have been the La Grande Wheel, Sky Ride, Hi Miler, Euroslide, Lil Dipper and Bumble Bees.

Sarah: I have noticed every year that the OC Fair features a ‘marketplace,’ of sorts where vendors come from all around to sell various goods. What is the planning process for this ‘marketplace’ like?

Robin: The OC Fair has three buildings and one outdoor area where Fair goers can get their shopping fix. In the Carnival, Parade and Festival of Products, Fair goers can find innovative kitchen gadgets, dried foods and seasonings, home décor, farm and garden, jewelry and more. In the Marketplace Village, the Orange County Market Place, the OC Fair & Event Center’s year-round partner, offers a taste of some of the vendors that participate in their weekend swap meet that is held regularly outside the OC Fair.

Sarah: In addition to local entertainers, the Pacific Amphitheatre holds larger concerts featuring a few well-known names. How does the planning process for these concerts differ from the ones featuring local entertainers?

Robin: The OC Fair features three unique venues each offering their own lineup of additional entertainment for Fair goers wanting more than just the Fair. In the Pacific Amphitheatre, the Fair books headline acts like Duran Duran, Sheryl Crow, Black Eyed Peas, Bob Dylan, ZZ Top, Martina McBride, Bill Cosby and “Weird Al” Yankovic. In The Hangar, the OC Fair’s newest venue, music lovers can enjoy tribute bands covering U2, Prince, Journey, Led Zeppelin, No Doubt, Elton John and Rolling Stones. Then in the Action Sports Arena, the Fair offers the popular demolition derbies, speedway, canine agility shows, mixed martial arts and skateboarding and BMX contests.

Sarah: The OC Fair is known for bringing out a more rural side of Orange County, featuring rodeos and livestock competitions. Could you ever imagine the Fair without these events, and if not, why?

Robin: The OC Fair prides itself on offering a diverse summer experience that includes a mix of the new and the old. Livestock competitions and exhibits are an important part of the OC Fair and the whole fair industry’s heritage and are a popular feature for locals who may not get the chance to experience the “country” life on their own.

Thank you Robin and the Communications team for sharing your insights; and we wish you much continued success with the OC Fair!

(Images from New Year’s Eve – courtesy of the OC Fair & Event Center)

-Written by Sarah Osman. You can read more from Sarah on Twitter.