Swing in the sunshine: The midway on a gorgeous late-summer day is but one fair attraction. MICHAEL DAVIS PHOTO
But there are some new features. Performing animal acts are everywhere. Coming in to challenge the perennially popular sea lions, raptors and sharks are a trio of smaller shows geared toward kids.
The best of these, Bear Mountain, features Syrian brown bears doing stunts like riding a bike, dunking a basketball and balancing on a rolling barrel in a ring set up near the Grandstand gate. If you notice the flimsy chicken wire that separates the stars, including 700-pound Nemo, from the audience, you have to feel reassured that the bruins are muzzled and well-behaved.
A more disturbing thought is that these majestic creatures spend most of their summer in a trailer between brief periods of doing silly tricks for food treats. The trainers, two women and a man dressed as Canadian Mounties, talk affectionately about their charges and keep the half-hour performance lively with bear stories and trivia. But when the applause dies down, it’s back to confinement for Nemo and friends.
If you prefer to watch domesticated animals entertain, Hollywood Racing Pigs is great comedy, but not much of a sport. There’s way more talk and hype than racing in the 15-minute show and the three races last less than a minute each. For the most part, the porkers just sort of trot around the little track creating brief moments of laughter. The announcer tries to keep it lively, introducing the competitors by such silly names as Dale Earn-hog, Jr., Sarah Jessica Porker, Roseanne Boar and Lindsey Lo-ham.
The pigs run in the infield amusement area, near the big top. Check schedules and coordinate to see the circus on the same trip. The best way to get the family there is to take the tram to stop No. 6.
The showmanship found at the pig attraction is remarkably absent in the slow-moving and disorganized Banana Derby. Two small monkeys wearing silks ride on the backs of large mutts in two very short races behind the Horticulture Building. The emcee provides some insight into the nature of his jockeys and tells us that the apes and the dogs are buddies in their big mixed-species family. The monkeys are very cute and really ham it up for the audience, but you really couldn’t call it a race as the dogs just stroll around the track. The whole deal lasts about 10 minutes.
The primary location for wine sipping this year is nicely done, with huge white tents covering the blacktop next to the western end of the Coliseum. Various New York wineries have set up shop serving glasses of both wine and slushies and giving out some samples. Full bottles can be purchased for take-home only.
A few steps up from the tent, there’s a patio with tables at the entrance to an indoor, air-conditioned lounge where the tavern used to be. The second wine location, the grandstand wine tent, has limited evening hours, 4:30 to 9:30 p.m.
Across the road from the wine village is a beer garden tent with a wide variety of domestic and imported bottled beers. It’s a good spot for beer drinkers to visit, but it may lead some to wonder why the New York breweries exhibit that was initiated at last year’s fair has not returned.
A visit to the State Fair by Hillary Clinton has become as familiar and comforting as the foot massagers dotting the grounds. JON DUFORT PHOTO
The Center of Progress Building, known as marketplace for kitchen gadgets, cleaning products and other infomercial-style products, is less so this year. The front half of the building is mostly devoted to state government and other public agencies, while the back half still houses hawkers and pitchmen, labeled by O’Hara as “a flea market.”
Two newly rebuilt food stands look great. Bosco’s (minus the Walter White’s and Jukebox labeling), the home of “Potatoe O’Rielly,” at the intersection outside the grandstand, and the Ale House, across from the Youth Building, have a fresh and classy look with multiple peaks on their green metallic roofs. These changes are the beginning of a multi-year project to renovate and refurbish Restaurant Row’s aging wooden structures.
On a disappointing note, the Iroquois Haudenosaunee Longhouse has not been completed. The model home of the original New Yorkers was first built for the 2000 Fair, but was leveled by stormy weather after the 2006 edition. There’s a framework in place, but for the second consecutive year, no longhouse.
Don’t expect anything too exciting based upon the promise of six new rides on the midway. There’s not much that looks different from what’s been here in years past. Some “new” rides are concepts that have been here with a new look or slight variation.
The Pride of New York Marketplace that has taken over the Lottery pavilion is essentially a grocery store with shelves stocked exclusively with New York sauces, dressings, syrups and canned goods, including some Central New York favorites. That prime location is a good place to promote Empire State products and businesses, but it’s hard to envision fairgoers bringing their shopping lists when they come and carrying bags full of groceries out to a shuttle bus, as O’Hara touted during an Aug. 19 media preview.