Most carnival rides hadn't arrived on the recent afternoon I visited the Florida State Fairgrounds in Tampa.
Sitting alone in the middle of an empty field, a brightly colored mini-coaster emblazoned with "Rock 'n' Roll" looked mighty lonely, sitting there unplugged. Things will look much different when the fair unveils its traditional combination of rides, shopping, arts and crafts, history and agriculture exhibits for a run that extends from Thursday-Feb.18.
History is always a part of it, but the past will loom even larger this year, the 500th anniversary of Spanish explorer Ponce DeLeon's arrival in Florida. The fair will incorporate that anniversary into exhibits such as "Florida Agriculture: 500 Years in the Making," a look at the history of farming hosted by the Florida Department of Agriculture.
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Visitors are invited to imagine themselves exploring in the spirit of Ponce DeLeon on the new "ConquistaTOUR," a self-guided exploration of the expansive fairgrounds, which occupies 330 acres next to the 1-800 ASK-GARY Amphitheater near Interstate 4 on the Orlando-side of Tampa.
Fortunately, all the education is wrapped in a fun approach. Someone in the marketing department obviously has a weakness for catchy puns, which surfaces in everything from the "Mooternity Ward" livestock exhibit to the Fair's "COWquistador" logo, which features a smiling cow accessorized in the garb of a Spanish explorer.
And, of course, the fair is still one of the only places to find adventure foods such as chocolate-covered bacon, a treat probably best indulged in only once a year.
One of the fair's most popular educational exhibits, Cracker Country, is a year-round fixture that's only rarely open to the general public. For most of the year, the outdoor village featuring 13 original buildings from the dawn of the 20th century is a popular field-trip destination for roughly 30,000 elementary-school students.
On my visit, I was chaperoned by Doyle E. Carlton III, a sixth-generation Floridian, whose great-grandfather's two-story house is Cracker Country's centerpiece. During the fair, Cracker Country hosts bluegrass shows and demonstrations of pioneer crafts. It also makes a nice getaway from the bustling midway.
Visit floridastatefair.com for details and a concert schedule that includes a Feb. 18 show by country star LeAnn Rimes.