Back in the day, when I was 17, I loved the Arizona State Fair -- hanging out waiting for Tesla to come on stage, riding the Zipper on lunch money I'd starved myself for five days to accumulate. It wasn't until we'd flipped around in the tiny cage and passed the ground for the fiftieth time that I'd notice the operator quite a distance away, flirting with the poster girl for Aqua Net.
I'd win prizes, too. "All you have to do is pop a balloon," the dart man would say, with an effortless demonstration. After dropping 20 bucks into his apron, I'd walk away with a mirror framed in finest quality cardboard, retail value $1.
The fair is much different now, but the ambiance remains the same. Even with interactive science displays and a new roller coaster ride replicating the Mouse Trap video game, the fair has the same basic appeal -- flashing lights and one-hit-wonder hip-hop acts still draw innocent fairgoers to the spin-me-until-I-spew rides. These days, however, all of the rides are contracted through RCS, Ray Cammack Shows, said to be one of the safest companies out there. Before RCS, all rides were contracted independently.
The Zipper is still the best of them because, while it throws you close to the pavement before swooshing you back up into the sky, you can control the spin of your cage by shifting your weight. The Evolution hangs you upside down for five seconds, long enough to watch pocket items fall into the crowd. The Hard Rock seats four on each side of two capsules, and throws you upside down and all around while -- this is the scariest part -- listening to Whitney Houston ballads. Quite ironic, considering the name.
Best enjoyed after the rides, a surplus of fine fair cuisine and domestic beer on tap is available on and off the midway. The only challenge is to choose from an Amtrak-long line of food vendors. On-a-stick delicacies range from corn on the cob to egg rolls to the traditional corn dog to beehives of cotton candy.
The agricultural center hasn't changed much, either. A plethora of sheep mill around in little gated communities, waiting to compete. Three or four judges sit nearby while individual sheep walk the green Astroturf. It can seem cruel; however, urban kids get a chance to see sheep close up, often for the first time.
The games are still tailored for the not-so-novice. The prizes hanging above, mostly Pokémon characters or promo pictures of Britney Spears and Eminem, are the only reason I know what year it is. I try to catch plastic fish on a line barely strong enough to floss with, and drop everything I catch. I finally manage to walk away with a Kermit the Frog from under the table, a prize too small for display. It's going home to my son.