Ventura County Fair: Many Paths to Fun, Sun, and Some Serious Business

By Tim Pompey

Opening day at the Ventura County Fair. Barely a half hour into the 11-day event and already the parking lot is full, traffic is jammed down Harbor Boulevard, and there are huge crowds swarming through the front entrance. Of course, one of the reasons there are so many people at this moment is that it’s Dollar Day. For families looking for a bargain (including myself), this is the day to come.

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Dollar Day – Best deal in town

But it’s not just the entry fee that brings us here. The Ventura County Fair has some definite advantages over larger venues like Los Angeles and Orange County.

For one thing, whether you’re a senior citizen or a parent arriving with bundles of children, this fair is very manageable. Whether you come in the morning or at night, you can cover the fairgrounds pretty thoroughly in about 4-6 hours, depending on how much time you spend at the carnival rides and games.

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Ventura County Fairgrounds

It’s also very safe and family oriented. Food, rides, animals, music, and a seaside atmosphere where in the dead of summer in California, it’s much cooler than hanging out in the valleys.

Two teenagers I meet on the Ferris wheel know that for a fact. Olivia Boyd from Newbury Park and Jamie Lilly from Moorpark, both sophomores at Newbury Park High School, have come to enjoy what they consider the event of the year. As Olivia exclaimed, “It’s the Ventura County Fair!”

Jamie enjoys the family atmosphere. “We’ve come here a couple of times and it just appeals to us,” he explained. “A lot of people talk about it and say it’s a lot of fun, a good place to go on a weekend. If you want to hang out, there’s plenty of attractions and chances to win prizes.”

As far as favorite things to do, Jamie points to the demolition derby. Not so strange. Young man. Cars crashing. Plus, as opposed to a video game, it’s real live destruction.

Olivia has a slightly different take. “Personally, one of my favorite things is the swing rides,” she said, “and just the fact that it’s a carnival, and those don’t happen very often.”

Jamie described the fair’s atmosphere as “coastal,” which, if you’re from the east county, means a nice ocean view and cool breezes that blow in your face. “Definitely more so than Newbury Park,” Olivia added.

Jennifer Krosp from Ventura is here with her two sons, ages two and four, her sister-in law (also named Jennifer), and her parents, Larry and Colleen Naumann. I found them just finishing up at the petting zoo. Juggling two kids, Krosp graciously agreed to talk to me.

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Jennifer Krosp (far right) and family

“My kids like the rides and the food,” she said. In particular, four-year-old Bradin likes the games. Asked why she returns to the fair annually, Jennifer said, “It’s a good family event. Everybody has a good time.”

And judging by her family group, it’s a good place for multiple generations to be together and just spend the day walking, chatting, eating, and having fun with the kids, which essentially is what the fair has come to symbolize for hundreds of fair goers who come back every year.

But not everyone who attends is local. The fair also draws people from around the country. Take Boston for example. Boston? Yes. Near the main entrance, I found two families attending the fair together. One of the fathers was from Boston. First time in Ventura. First time at the fair. I caught him early. His family and friends had barely had a chance to move past the front gate.

We locals tend to compare our fair to more urban counties like Los Angeles and Orange County and think of the Ventura County Fair as something smaller and more regional. Not so for A.K. Ikwuakor from Boston.

“To be honest, this is the biggest fair that I’ve been in so far,” A.K. stated. “It’s a humongous event for all ages. You see rides for adults. You see a lot of booths for kids. We got here at 11:30 in the morning and there was a line out the door.”

His first impression of the Ventura County fair was that it was very busy and full of diverse people. “There are a lot of people here from all different backgrounds,” he stated. A.K. himself is descended from family in Nigeria, “From the line, we’ve only been able to move from the front entrance to the first rides. We’ve already found some amazing rides for the kids, so overall it’s been a fun event so far.”

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A.K. Ikwuakor (right) from Boston

His daughter has requested a pony ride. Judging by the location of the animal exhibits on the far side of the fair and the large number of attractions still to come, A.K. and friends could be here a while.

Part of the draw of the fair is the constant sensual response to the noise, the food, the music, and did I say noise? Plenty of that.

Right off the bat you’re hit with the sight and smells of turkey legs, ice cream, cotton candy, onion rings, sweetened almonds, corn, caramel popcorn, and pretzels. And then there’s another welcome surprise further down the road. Pink’s Hot Dogs has returned this year.

For the wandering fair goer, we take food and entertainment for granted, but behind the scenes, people make their living at this fair and similar events around California. Some are local. Some come from out of town. Some are from across the world. But for all of them, the fair is important to their livelihood.

Elaine Martinez, for instance, is the owner of Crystal Fantasy located right here in Ventura. Her specialty is rather unique: flattened wine bottles. These are intended for people looking for something different to hang on their walls, or for wine lovers who like to decorate, or as Martinez comments, “for the person who has everything.”

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Elaine Martinez’s Crystal Fantasy

Martinez and company flatten these bottles at a manufacturing site right here in Ventura. She only sells these at fairs, and occasionally during the Christmas holidays at the Pacific View Mall.
So the obvious question becomes: How do you flatten a wine bottle? Martinez takes a little time to explain it to me:  “You put them in a kiln,” she noted, “and it goes up to about 1600 degrees. It’s a special program that takes the temperature up gradually and lets it go down gradually and when they come out of the kiln this is what they look like.”

Add interesting and funny labels and you’ve got yourself a nice, flat bottle to do with as you please—spoon holder, wall decoration, you name it. It has a certain sense of, dare I say it, je ne sais quoi. Just one problem, particularly for wine lovers. You can’t use it any more to drink wine.

For entrepreneurs Joe and Denise Carbone from Santa Clarita, their fair exhibit, Welsh Cakes  grew out of their struggles during the financial recession.

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Joe and Denise Carbone

For the uninitiated like myself, a Welsh cake is cooked on a hot stone griddle and looks like a cross between a scone and a cookie.

As Joe tells it, he needed something to do after he lost his job during the recent recession. He and his wife, who is a native of Wales, decided to try their luck at making this unique type of baked good. Denise inherited the recipe from her family in Wales. “Each family in Wales has a recipe and each family has a bake stone,” Joe said, “and they usually pass their bake stone on in the family.”

For the last six years or so, the Carbones have traveled to Celtic events such as the Seaside Highland Games coming to the Ventura fairgrounds in October. Their product has been a hit, and with improved production processes, they can now make more of them faster. So, they’re trying to branch out to fairs.

Obviously, the Carbones via a commercial kitchen have figured out a way to make these specialty items en masse to sell to the public. They are tasty and different and they have several different types. But the most interesting thing is that the Carbones have reinvented their careers with a very unique type of product, and they are growing fast. “We’re kind of an institution at certain events,” Joe said proudly, “like the Scottish fair here in Ventura. There’ll be a line out the door the entire day for people just waiting to get their Welsh cakes.”

If you’re looking for something to wear that has some flair to it, consider the booth run by Shivani Kamboh, owner of Raja Fashion U.S.A.out of Apple Valley. Kamboh specializes in Indian wear, especially the beautiful pashminas that can be draped over the shoulders as wraps or shawls. Kamboh, who is from New Delhi, has been importing and selling her clothing for about 10 years. She doesn’t have a store. She makes her living doing fairs. I’m enchanted with the exotic blend of colors and patterns.
“I have all different kinds of clothing, but I sell mainly pashminas,” said Kamboh. “Women can wear these over their suits.”

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Shivani Kamboh, owner of Raja Fashion U.S.A

They’re easy to use and fashionable to wear, and who would think here at this fair that you could actually talk to and buy clothes from someone who has lived halfway around the world? It seems the fair itself is its own small continent.

For kids and more than a few animal loving adults, the animal exhibits at the agriculture building are a big draw. Today there are dozens of different types of sheep and goats. Later, this building will feature pigs, cows, horses,and so much more. Animals will be auctioned and ribbons passed out to eager farmers who bring in their prized stock. Bragging rights are on the line for the winners, as well as the money they make from selling their breeding stock.

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The fair is an unending source of eye candy. As I walk down the main thoroughfare, I could, if I so chose, stop in and take a look at a giant snake exhibit, buy hats, eat nonstop, listen to bluegrass by the Iron Mountain Boys or take in classic rock by Steve Lord at the Station Stage, which I actually did while munching on a Pink’s chili cheese dog. Given the way I grew up, this is a perfect synchronization of two things I loved as a kid.

Of course, as I finish up on the Ferris wheel, I can look out from a hundred feet in the air over the ocean and dream of flying. This fair kind of does that to you; gives you permission to let loose and do nothing but entertain yourself. Eat drink and be merry without the slightest ounce of guilt.

I think that’s the real reason why people keep coming back. All year they work hard. When they come in today, they know that whatever burden they’ve carried on their backs is thrown off. By themselves or with friends or family, right now, all they have to do is have fun.

Photo Credits: Tim Pompey

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Tim Pompey, a freelance writer who has done lots of local affairs and entertainment/cultural writing, lives in Oxnard. Tim is also a fiction writer (Facebook Page). You can presue is books his page on Amazon.com: amazon.com/author/booksbytimpompey.

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