Florida State Fair Ends Strong

In spite of a wet start, the fair sets attendance records

  • by Jessica Boudevin
  • Published: March 9, 2016

A shot of the Florida State Fair midway that was chosen as part of the 'Hit Em With Your Best Shot' photo contest.

Florida State Fair in Tampa, Feb. 4-15, brought 395,435 fans to the fairgrounds to find ‘More to Explore.’ The first six days of the fair suffered from rain, wind, and cold, but “several attendance records were set in spite of the seasonably wet and chilly weather that beleaguered the Fair early on,” said Cheryl Flood, acting director of Florida State Fair Authority. Flood stepped in after the resignation of longtime fair director Chuck Pesano after this year’s event.

Overall attendance was up 6,605 over last year due to inclement weather. The climate also played a role as far as the fair’s largest day, with 71,255 attendees on Feb.13, the second Saturday of the fair on a 72-degree sunny day.

“This was the sixth highest attendance recorded over the past 21 years,” said John Prestianni, director of Finance.

Though attendance was up, the admissions gross of $3,016,676 was down 2.8 percent from last year. Sponsorship increased by more than 6 percent, for a total of about $980,000 all in cash.  This consisted of mostly growth from current sponsors, including Coca-Cola Beverages of Florida, Mattress Firm, Sleep Number, and WellCare Health Plans. The fair also received a $15,000 sponsorship from the Florida Department of Agriculture and Community Services.

Ticket prices held steady, with advance sales at $9 for adults and $5 ages 6-11, or $11-$13 at the gate. One tradition at Florida State Fair is free parking.

“We need to keep it free to avoid major traffic tie-ups on Interstate 4,” said Prestianni, who said that it still gets backed up on busy days.

Florida State Fair has an annual operating budget of $19.8 million.

Centerplate serves as the fair’s main concessionaire, with most of its sales relating to beer. Independent concessionaires account for nearly all F&B sales. Several interesting food items debuted at this year’s fair, including funnel cake pizza, a PB&J and bacon quesadilla with chocolate or caramel dipping sauce, and Amish Baking Company’s Frisbee-sized ‘sweetheart doughnut’ with strawberries and whipped cream for $9.

The People’s Choice Burger contest, which debuted last year, was back by popular demand, with 1,803 people voting to decide the best burger of the fair. According to Marketing and Communications Manager Laurie Hayes, attendees could choose from the Bacon Bomb Burger (seasoned with ranch, BBQ sauce, special seasoning and bacon crumbles sliced into patties and served on a Kaiser roll), the French Toast Burger (fresh patty served between slices of homemade French Toast), Ice Cream Burger (a traditional burger topped with fried ice cream), and the Red Neck Burger (fresh burger with bacon and cheese, baked beans, potato sticks and fried bologna). The Bacon Bomb Explosion won the day with 47 percent of total votes.

The fair does not track food and beverage, charging a flat fee for licensing of spaces. However, alcohol sales were down about 2 percent from last year.

Commercial sales revenue increased by more than 13 percent in 2016 with 195 separate vendors (an increase of 11 over last year). When it comes to Ag-related exhibits, “for the past several years exhibitor numbers have fluctuated up and down less than 100 each year, sometimes up, sometimes down. And animal numbers have done the same,” said Vina Jean Banks, director of Agribusiness. 

The most successful exhibit this year was the White House Experience, featuring authentic presidential memorabilia from the Roosevelt era to today, including replicas of the Oval Office and White House Briefing Room. “Intentionally planned to coincide with an election year, the exhibit attracted a nearly constant crowd,” said Flood.

Florida State Fair focused on social media this year, creating a new photo contest and engaging with patrons both before and during the fair. Behind-the-scenes photos remained a big draw, but pictures came from both the fair and from patrons. There were so many great attendee photos posted across social platforms that the fair conceived the idea of a contest to recognize the best of the best. After calling for entries, the fair chose 10 favorite photos. “We then posted those to our website and Facebook page for people to like and determine the top three, which will be featured on the fair’s website and on our electronic LED sign,” said Hayes. The three winning photographers will be awarded Family Four-packs of tickets and ride armbands for next year’s event.

Social media was used to increase responsiveness, as well. “We fielded a good amount of inquiries on Facebook, from questions about ticket price to Midway hours to locations of favorite food vendors,” said Hayes. Total Facebook ‘likes’ increased nearly 2,500 to just less than 16,000 during the month of February.

The fair’s entertainment budget increased nearly 7 percent over last year to approximately $690,000. Most concerts were free with fair admission, other than Leroy VanDyke’s Country Gold Tour where general admission was $10 with reserved floor seating for $20. The three biggest acts were Gary Puckett (1,150 attendance), Robert Cray (1,025) and Colt Ford (1,500). Other free acts included Christian rock band Tenth Avenue North, rocker Aranda, Beatlemania, and the Elvis Extravaganza. 

The two ticketed concerts led to a total gross of $29,600.

Last year, the fair hired a Midway Manager of Wade Shows to transition from a purely independent midway.

“The Midway enhancement and branding that began in 2015 continued this year as W.G. Wade Shows Inc. once again placed emphasis on a convenient and attractive layout that included added greenery, seating areas and wider aisles,” said Flood.

This year, the carnival implemented $1 rides on Wednesday, BOGO armbands on Thursdays and after 4 p.m. on Super Bowl Sunday. Another first-time promotions was the Gold Access Pass for $15, granting wristband-wearers access to a special line for entry to rides.

“Since we have implemented everyday armbands in 2014, wristbands have increased from 65 percent of our midway sales in 2013 to 83 percent of our midway sales in 2016,” said Prestianni.

New rides this year included Super Cyclone Roller Coaster, Hurricane, Balloon Wheel, Disk’O, and Jungle Twist. Lauther Amusements rejoined the midway after a 2-year absence, bringing three of the 22 new rides on the midway, which held 115 total rides.

Due to poor weather opening weekend, midway revenue was down 3.4 percent to $4,251,000. Record-setting days the last three days of the fair helped get the gross near to last year’s numbers. The fair receives 55 percent of gross midway proceeds.

The midway could change a bit come 2017.

“The Fair Authority is in final discussions to purchase a new replacement slide for the one destroyed in a storm in May of 2015,” said Prestianni. “Wade shows is in the process of purchasing the largest portable Ferris Wheel in North America which should be at our Fair next year, and is also examining the feasibility of adding a Zip Line that will span our largest lake.”

Interviewed for this story: Cheryl Flood, John Prestianni, Vina Jean Banks, and Laurie Hayes, (813) 621-7821

  • by Jessica Boudevin
  • Published: March 9, 2016