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How to get a fair (cheap) deal at the fair

How much fun can you have with just $20 in your pocket? An exclusive Times investigation.

Published February 9, 2007

[Times photo: Skip O'Rourke]
Bunky Boger checks on a male calf just seconds after its birth at 3:23 p.m. Thursday on the opening day of the Florida State Fair. Fairgoers could watch calves, goats and chickens being born in the barn, with the calf being the most popular.

View fair photos and share yours

Cheapness is an art. Don't let any fancy-pants spendthrift tell you otherwise.

At the Florida State Fair, though, cheapness is more than art. It's a necessity. A family can drop $50 on the midway alone. A $10 ticket here, an $8 turkey leg there, a $20 souvenir in the middle - it adds up in a hurry.

So Thursday, the fair's opening day, the Times set out to experience as much of the fair as humanly possible - lunch, rides, games, souvenirs, the whole nine yards - for exactly $20. One adult, one ticket, one crisp Andrew Jackson. Here's a Cheapskate's Guide to the Florida State Fair.

Admission: $6

Thanks to Publix, I snagged an advance ticket for only $6, a 40 percent discount from the actual retail price. The Publix presale has ended, but there are other ticket deals to be found, including discounted student tickets today and Feb. 19, and discounted senior days next week. (Visit for more admission specials.)

Food: $3.50

Truth be told, one could make a meal out of the fair's free samples alone. I snagged two packs of chips and French onion dip from some promoters outside the front gate. A cookware demonstration yielded a decent sample of cooked chicken and veggies. A chef in the Ag Hall of Fame building - a great place for cheap eats - handed out plates of sweet orange shrimp and roasted potatoes. And samples of soup, oranges, honey, fudge and pork rinds are everywhere.

For lunch, I bought a hot dog ($2 on the midway), a chocolate-dipped strawberry on a toothpick (50 cents), and a bottle of water ($1). Sadly, after I bought the water, I spotted a tent selling iced tea for 75 cents. Dang!

Rides: $3

Ride tickets are $1 apiece. Luckily, the $3 rides are just as good as the $4 ones. I chose the Zipper, an oblong device that turns like a Ferris wheel, with cages that spin independently. We flipped too many times to count. Totally worth the price.

Souvenirs: $0

Who needs souvenirs when you've got giveaways in Expo Hall? Sure, some of it's junk: pens, flimsy magnets, more coloring books than someone our age needs. But some's not bad. For example, by watching that cooking demo, I got a free stainless steel paring knife.

The best junk came from Johnny Law. The Florida Highway Patrol handed out sippy cups and foam bouncy balls. The Tampa Police Department gave me a free gun lock. (We don't own a gun, but still...) And I'm very proud of the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office badge proclaiming me a Junior Crime Fighter.

Before long, all this swag got heavy. So I picked up a free knapsack from Chevy. Problem solved.

Entertainment: $5

There's more than enough free entertainment, from live music to dog shows to exotic animal displays. (You don't need to sell me on the merits of Hollywood Racing Pigs.) And one freak show trotted out a man who drove nails into his nose and a dwarf who ate fire. That was nice. In the end, I dropped $5 on the opening night concert by Reel Big Fish. (Nightly $5 concerts run throughout the fair.)

Games: $2

There are free games if you know where to look. I won a free vanilla Frosty in a wheel-spinning game sponsored by Wendy's and a can koozie from the Division of Forestry. I struck out on a ball-toss game offered by Advil, though I did receive some free pills. And while I suppose you could consider milking a cow sort of "game," I decided to take a rain check.

Most midway games cost at least $2, but there are exceptions. I played five balls for $1 at a Skee-Ball alley, and didn't win jack. Bummer. But, when I plunked down $1 at a nearby Wiffle Ball toss game, I hit the jackpot and won a foot-tall plush Florida Gator. Score!

Physical therapy: 50 cents

I ended up with 50 cents left. I was exhausted - shopping for deals isn't easy, you know - so I dropped 25 cents into a Footsie Wootsie vibrating foot massager. Ahhhhh. It felt so good, in fact, I decided: What the heck, let's do it again. So I popped in the final quarter for one more foot rub.

Hey, you only live once. Might as well splurge.

[Last modified February 9, 2007, 01:32:00]

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