This year, the N.C. State Fair is making national headlines. USA Today named the 11-day affair the 10th best state fair in the country. Now it's time to take it all in.
The 2015 fair runs from Thursday to Sunday, Oct. 25.
As usual, old favorites return to this year's fair (though at least one is in a new location). And new activities are planned. Here's a guide for families with some practical tips and don't-miss activities.
Ride for free (if you have little ones)
If you're going with really little ones, there are a few rides that adults can ride for free with kids. Parents can ride on all slides and merry-go-rounds for free when accompanying a paying child who is 40 inches tall or less. The Kiddieland Midway has about 25 rides, along with four games that are designed for young children (you'll need cash for those). The minimum height requirement for children's rides is 36 inches tall.
As you're divvying up your ride tickets, it's also helpful to know that kiddie rides will typically require two to four tickets each. Bigger rides are three to five tickets each and large, spectacular rides can be as many as eight tickets, according to the fair's website.
What to bring
A trip to the fair can get expensive. You can save a lot of money by bringing your own drinks and food. I have packed a lunch before and then splurged on some Howling Cow ice cream or other treat.
You are welcome to bring diaper bags, backpacks, food, snacks, coolers and drinks (no glass bottles or alcohol). Just be aware that bags and coolers can be searched at the gate for prohibited materials. Mothers' Rooms for nursing moms (and those needing a quiet space to feed their baby), are located in the Scott, Martin, Expo and Graham buildings.
Strollers and wagons are welcome too. You also can rent one from vendors at Gates 1, 8, 9 and 10.
How to get there
Free parking is available on State Fair, Carter-Finley Football Stadium and PNC Arena properties, but young children, especially, might enjoy getting there by bus. (In fact, it might just be their favorite ride all day). Parents will enjoy skipping the hassle of parking.
You can pick up a bus at spots in Raleigh, Cary, Durham, Chapel Hill and RTP. They will drop you off just outside the fair's gates. The fair's website has details on locations and schedules.
The fair made a big change to the line-up at Dorton Arena. This year, all concerts in the venue are part of the fair's Homegrown North Carolina Concert Series, featuring acts with N.C. roots. All tickets are free. There is reserved seating on the floor of Dorton Arena. Reserved tickets are limited to six per person and can be picked up at the Dorton Arena Box Office beginning at 9 a.m. the morning of each show. Permanent seats in Dorton are first come, first served. The concerts start at 7:30 p.m.
Get some deals
There are a couple of new ways to save money at the fair this year. On Friday, Oct. 16, all students with a valid school ID can buy admission tickets for $5 - that's half off the usual price. I suspect this will be popular this year as Friday is an early release day for many Wake County students. Also, from 10 a.m. to closing, Friday, Oct. 16, the midway will offer an unlimited ride wristband for $34. The wristbands can be purchased at the midway ride ticket locations inside the fairgrounds.
And there's still time to take advantage of a family four-pack deal. The pack includes four admission tickets and two ride sheets for $44 - $32 off the gate price and an $8 savings off advance cost. The packs are available through 11:59 p.m., Oct. 15. They are a print-at-home ticket.
Some popular discounts also return.
Food Lion Hunger Relief Day at the fair is Oct. 22. Get free admission by donating five cans of food to North Carolina hunger relief efforts. It benefits the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina.
Also, Thursday, Oct. 15 is Preview Day, when the gate admission price is the same as the advance sales price. The Preview Day Ride Wristband will be $28. It's good for unlimited rides between 3 p.m. and midnight (weather permitting) on Oct. 15 only.
For those in Wake County schools, you can support your school by buying online admission tickets through Wake's Etix page and selecting your school from the dropdown menu. Schools will get $2 for each adult admission ticket and $1 for each child ticket purchased.
Beat the crowds
If you're not a fan of crowds, weekdays are the best days for families with children. If you're headed there on the weekends, get there before lunch. It starts getting really busy around lunch time.
The fair opens at 3 p.m., Oct. 15. On all other days, the grounds open at 8 a.m.; the exhibit halls at 9 a.m.; and the rides at 10 a.m. If you have early risers, get there at 8 a.m., have breakfast, walk the exhibits halls, hop on some rides and get out of there by lunch.
Take care with the animals
It's been four years since more than two dozen visitors at the fair got sick during an E. coli outbreak that was linked to a fair livestock display. So, even if you don't touch any animals, be sure to take advantage of the many hand washing stations through the fair - don't rely on just wipes or hand sanitizer.
New this year: Guinea pigs have been added to the rabbit barn. There also are rabbit agility demonstrations.
Big trucks, parade planned for Military Appreciation Day
The day to honor members of the U.S. military is Oct. 21. This year, the first 3,000 people through the gates will receive a 4" by 6" United States flag. The day also includes a parade at 11 a.m. that starts at the midway, weaves around to Dorton Arena, through Kiddieland toward Gate 11 and then back down through the midway.
Kids will enjoy taking a closer look at military equipment such as an Abrams Main Battle Tank, a Bradley Fighting Vehicle, a High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, a Heavy Equipment Truck, Mini-C-130 Aircraft and more. You'll find them in the Grandstand area until 6 p.m., that day. There also will be music from the 440th Army Band and the Historical Uniform Revue during the afternoon at the Waterfall Stage.
Pig races make a move
The very popular pig races have moved from just inside Gate 9 to just inside Gate 10 behind the Scott Building. The fair's Folk Festival will be inside Dorton Arena during the day this year, freeing up a larger space and more seating for the pig races.
When I bring my kids to the fair, we focus on the free activities - the animals, the exhibits, the music and the other educational activities. Field of Dreams is always a favorite exhibit for kids. Marbles Kids Museum and UNC-TV will again team up for a tent with free, low-key activities for young kids near Dorton Arena. Don't miss the Guest Star Day this Saturday and a Bob the Builder Day on Oct. 24.
I like the Flower & Garden Show for a slower pace. The N.C. Wildlife Resources tent always has fun activities for kids. And don't miss Smokey Bear. These links take you to posts that I've written about the fair in the past. Just know that some things may have changed (other than the schedule for this year's Guest Star Day).
The fair also has a variety of free entertainment each day.
And if you're at the fair from 10:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m., Oct. 19, drop by the WRAL-TV tent near Dorton Arena. I'll be there with my buddy Faye Prosser, the WRAL Smartshopper!