As a kid growing up in North Carolina, I never understood the hype around the state fair. Oh, a few rides that pale in comparison to any at an amusement park? Great. A crowd-hating dad continuously leaving you in the dust while trying to escape a densely packed pocket of people? Fun. Exhibit halls full of old cake wearing blue ribbons? Delicious. You get the idea.
It wasn’t until I had a kid with a permanent case of FOMO that I truly began to respect the fair. Armed with the hereditary skill of the ye olde guilt trip, she forced us to experience everything. We saw every tractor, goat and cow. We rode the Sky Tram. We watched the basket weavers in the Village of Yesteryear. And guess what? Now that I wasn’t a shitty teenager, I loved every bit of it. And with a little bit of planning, seeing and doing it all in one day was possible.
Over the course of a few years, I feel like I’ve perfected my family’s fair trek. I feel so strongly that my way is the right way that I’m forcing it on you all, too. The fair is in Raleigh and runs from Thursday, Oct. 12 to Sunday, Oct. 22.
When to Go, Where to Park and Tickets
The first and last time I went on a weekend, I felt like I was becoming my dad. Strollers hit me in the ankles three times. Lines were long. It was loud — everywhere. Lesson learned. I cannot stress going during the week enough. Weekdays are not not busy, but they are much more manageable. Arriving at around 2 p.m. gives you plenty of time to see and do pretty much everything you’d want, and enjoy the rides after dark.
You might be the type who would walk three football fields before conceding some imagined defeat by using a park and ride service, but just take the damn shuttle. You’re going to be walking all day. Park and let the bus take you right to the gate.
Buy ride wristbands online if you can, can, and check the tickets page for special discounts on certain days.
Download the map and check the daily schedule to make sure you don’t miss a good lumberjack show (if that’s your thing). Sometimes there might even be a band you recognize on the music lineup, which ranges from country to hip hop, punk rock and metal.
If you’re looking for something extra to do throughout the day, download a scavenger hunt. There are several for kids of different ages, and even one with fun N.C. trivia (did you know there are more turkeys living in North Carolina than people?) You can turn these sheets in for a prize. I’ve never done it so I can’t tell you what these prizes are, but this year I might report back.
First Up: Exhibits, Beer, Tiny Rides and a Snack
Ideally, you’ll enter the fair at Gates 1-3, which puts you right outside the pottery, poultry and 4-H exhibits. This is a great place to start — you can breeze through the crafts and other exhibits while the excitement of the rides, food and other fun still lingers. There’s also a big waterfall in this area, which is a nice landmark where your family can meet should you get separated.
The N.C. Public House is right in this area. It opens at noon, so you could start your fair adventure with samples of wine and beer from across the state if you so choose. There are also a few food vendors here, so you could get a snack. Last year, we picked Hot Chix Hotcakes and Chicken. I strongly recommend.
There are also a few kiddie rides in this area, so it’s a good spot for little (and even big) kids to get in some action before you move on to the second part of your trip.
Then: The Sky Tram
If you find yourself identifying with my father throughout this article, you’re probably going to tell me that you’re not spending money on admission, food and ride wristbands just to spend extra cash on the Sky Tram. Well, I’ll tell you it’s worth it. The tram is just slow enough to give you a break if you’re already needing it, lets you see most of the fair, and magically transports you across the largest midway into the exhibits that celebrate North Carolina’s agricultural heritage.
Smell the sawdust at the mill, see demos of blacksmithing and watch lumberjacks compete in games like log rolling. You’ll learn about fire safety and you might even catch a mock tobacco auction. You’ll also get to see award-winning garden displays and flowers and big-ass gourds. Don’t forget to get frozen apple cider. We look forward to it each year — it just tastes better at the fair.
Don’t scoff at the Village of Yesteryear, as you’ll get to see all kinds of artisans at work. When you exit, take a bathroom break, and then check out the children’s barnyard right across the path. You can do some shopping at the marketplace if you like, but now you’re near the main midway — rides are next.
While You’re There: Look for Locals
There are at least three local companies that will be representing Moore County at the fair. You’ll find beer from Hatchet and Southern Pines Spirits in the N.C. Public House.
Pik N Pig rents two spaces to provide a small picnic area, but you’ll be lucky to find a seat. They’ve been serving at the fair since 2006, just before they started their restaurant in Carthage. Tiffani Sheppard says their best seller is the BBQ Sundae — “it’s quick, delicious, a conversation starter and best of all, it’s THE easiest thing to eat at the fair.”
“To be sought out by those who only come to the fair for the food each year is a badge of honor that we love to carry,” she says. “Each year we see a lot of the same ol’ faces, many from our very own Moore County along with some new ones and we welcome them all the same. To be able to see all those that have supported us over the years is so incredibly humbling, heartwarming and fun!”
Next: The Midways
You’ve already gone past the “Kiddieland” midway, but now you should be near some larger rides. This is what you do as the sun sets. The midway you’re looking at now is under the Sky Tram; there is another, usually with even larger rides, near the Scott Building. Lines for rides will get longer as the sun goes down, so consider riding what you really want to experience first.
New this year is a double-decker carousel, which I’m excited about — and I survived a duct-taped roller coaster at Carowinds.
Other new rides include the techno jump, in which riders spin in a circle while the arms of the ride rise and fall in different rhythmic sequences – a wave like upward and downward motion where one car follows the lead of the other ones, or doesn’t. Maybe wait until after this ride for funnel cake. See other new rides here.
Somewhere in Between: The Food
The worst state fair food I’ve ever eaten? Street corn. It was covered in toppings and juice squirted in every direction every time I took a bite. I had to stand in the gap between a caricature artist and a water-gun target game to hide my shame as I wiped seasoning from my face with the sleeve of my shacket. Was it good? Yes. Did I regret it? Immensely. Let this be a warning to you.
I have also learned to avoid any of the cheesesteak-like items offered by dozens of vendors. You’d think something covered in peppers and onions and cooked on a grill full of butter would be full of flavor, but it’s always blandtown, population you. I cannot explain it.
If you marvel over fair food, here’s a list of everything new this year. I’m excited about brisket and waffles on a stick and the pulled pork mac n cheese danish. I appreciate that there is a vendor named “Another Food Truck.” Don’t miss the truck named “Chesters Gaters & Taters,” that’s serving “Politician Fries” with a built-in Instagram caption — they are covered in cheese and full of bologna.
Last: The End
Make your way back to Gates 1-3, stopping for beer or wine at the N.C. Public House before waiting in line for the SkyGazer. This ferris wheel offers a great view of the midway (if you time it right, you can also see the nightly fireworks across the fair) and is the perfect bookend to your trip.
This was not produced in partnership with the North Carolina State Fair, but was produced in the hopes of receiving several free tickets next year. SEVERAL.