San Diego Fair Embraces Western Roots

California’s largest fair kicked-off with a cattle drive through downtown San Diego

  • by Brad Weissberg
  • Published: June 7, 2017

The entrance to San Diego County Fair's Western-themed 2017 fair, held in Del Mar, Calif. (VT Staff)

REPORTING FROM DEL MAR, Calif. —“Where The West Is Fun” is this year’s theme at San Diego County Fair, Del Mar, Calif., harkening to its origins as an agricultural fair in 1880. The location moved from place to place for several years, finally settling on the Del Mar Fairgrounds in 1936. The fair will be open for 26 days, spread over five weekends, from June 2 through July 4.

“We are the longest running fair in North America,” said Tim Fennell, CEO, San Diego County Fair, “and the largest in California.” Fennell was excited by the Western theme and predicts it will be as big a hit as last year’s “Mad About The Fair," an Alice in Wonderland meets Steampunk theme that broke attendance records with 1.6 million attendees.

IMG_9626.JPGAn exhibit in the Western Exhibit Hall at San Diego County Fair, Del Mar, Calif.

New this year, tying in with the theme, is a Western Exhibit Hall, several weekends of rodeo, country music, Frontier Town, a Wild West-themed space that will feature cowboy stunt shows and even an 1800’s-style gold rush hidden speakeasy.

“We’ve got Toby Keith, Darius Rucker, LeAnn Rimes and Jeff Foxworthy,” said Fennell about his all-star western lineup. For the nonwestern music-lover, Fennell said Patti LaBelle, Styx, Grand Funk Railroad and Peter Cetera are all booked.

New food will include bacon-wrapped cactus, asparagus and Brussels sprouts at concessionaire Bacon Affair, crispy cream chicken ice cream sandwiches, deep fried octopus and zucchini, crispy jalapeño cream cheese poppers, double cheddar cheese smoked bacon and peanut butter meatballs at Chicken Charlie’s. The popular cost-saving coupon book full of concession discounts is also back this year.

The secret speakeasy, called The Jade Peacock, can only be accessed by invitation. “The only way to get in is to go to one of three or four specific bars like The Painted Pony, Spurs Spirits or the Into The Sunset Bar and get an invitation,” said Fennell, sneakily.


"Belle" and "Miss Kitty" (their real names are secret, just like the bar) serve special Western cocktails at The Jade Peacock speakeasy at San Diego County Fair, Del Mar, Calif.

“On the card is a secret password that will change every day,” he said. The card will instruct the guest where to go meet an escort who will take them through a tunnel to the hidden bar, modeled after an old-time Speakeasy. The bar only holds 40-50 patrons at a time, serves special themed cocktails and will only be open during special hours.

Flying U Rodeo, an “extreme rodeo” is booked June 10 and 11, the highlight of which is a “bull jumper." There will also be “Bull Poker” where cowboys play poker at a card table and the last cowboy sitting at the table as a bull is rampaging around, is the winner. The version on the 11th will be a Fiesta Del Charro and have a Hispanic twist.


An exhibit in the Western Exhibit Hall at San Diego County Fair, Del Mar, Calif.

“Our fair is so big we have festivals inside the festival,” said Fennell. “We have a beer festival; we have a wine festival; we have a spirit festival; we have a gospel festival, we have a mariachi festival, we have an Asian festival and we have the LGBTQ-event, Out At The Fair.”

Admission to the fair is $18.  Children and seniors are $11. Kids five-and-under get in free. June 27 is Kids Day and all kids 12-and-under will get in free. An all-access pass for $26 will get a fair-fan in all 26 days.

Over 80 “thrilling rides” will be running every day. There are special Wristband Days on Wednesdays and Thursdays, the 7th and 8th, 14th and 15th and the 21st and 22nd of June that will allow access to all the rides, the cost is $38. On Saturdays and Sundays, the 3rd, 4th, 10th and 11th of June, all-access wristbands can be purchased online and will be good from 12pm to 8pm. “The idea is to push attendance on certain days,” explained Fennell about why the wristbands would not be available every day.

Fennell predicts beating last year’s attendance record. To help get there, Fennell and his team arranged Wild Western Wednesday, a block party on May 24 in San Diego’s Gaslight District with country and western bands and “Into The Sunset beer brewed just for the fair,” said Fennell.

At the event, the Mayor of San Diego announced a two and a half-mile cattle drive that took place June 3. “Over 200 head of cattle and 50 riders drove cows in front of the convention center, across the railroad tracks, right up 5th Avenue, down Market Street and back down where it started. It’s the first time in 200 years they’ve had a cattle drive down the streets of downtown San Diego,” said Fennell.

Arranging the cattle drive was not easy. “Our permits have to have permits,” joked Fennell. “Just to cross the railroad tracks involved multiple agencies, shop owners and meeting upon meeting upon meeting.” Fennell said that the novel event attracted national coverage.

“We welcome everybody at the fair,” said Fennell. “We expect people from not only the county but from all over the country.”


  • by Brad Weissberg
  • Published: June 7, 2017