The State Fair: A Family Affair?

Y’all, it is my favorite time of year: the beginning of the last third. Nearly everything good about the year is still ahead of us, with only my birthday in the rear view mirror. I still have the premiers of all of my favorite shows, several pre-ordered books, Jake’s birthday, the YALSA conference, Halloween, Thanksgiving, and…

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Christmas! Even following that, is a season of socially acceptable hermit behavior, with the possibility of waking up to a winter wonderland and a text message from the automated system at work, informing me that I have a paid day off for reading and snuggling the dogs. Come fall, the decor is prettier, the food is better, the clothes are cuter, and the temperatures are bearable. Zetus lapetus, after playing the house cat all summer, I love this time of year.

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There’s one favorite fall festivity I left out: the state fair. Every September, the fair immediately follows my birthday, a convenient extension of the already drawn out celebration. Now that I’m married to rodeo folk, our trick riding nieces serve as the perfect annual draw to people watch, day drink, and eat ourselves sick before settling in to watch a nine-year-old hang upside down from a horse, before triumphantly hoisting herself to a standing position, when I can barely be trusted with a step stool on the best of days. It’s always been great fun and I looked forward to it for some time, having bought tickets in August, to save a few dollars.

This year, as we made our way through the horde of people, however, I saw it through new eyes. With Jake and I having spoken more and more about starting a family, I couldn’t help but notice the families surrounding us… and how miserable they all seemed. I eventually turned to Jake and declared:

Me: “I’m willing to concede that this is possibly one of those claims I’ll make before we have children, and later I’ll eat my words, but I don’t think I’d ever bring our kids to the fair.”

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I stand by this claim and if Future Belle wants to prove me wrong, I welcome her to do so, because…

The fair is swarming with people.
We went to the fair on a Saturday night, because that’s when the girls were trick riding. Folks, I don’t even like to go to the mall on a Saturday night and that’s open for the entire year, as opposed to just two weeks in September. When I was single, I frequently did my grocery shopping at 1:00 in the morning, because that’s the best time to go to Wal-Mart. Black Friday is strictly for eating sweet potato pancakes and watching Christmas movies, while shopping online. I hate crowds.

Rationally, I’m afraid of some drunk guy getting in my face when I stumble and cause him to spill his beer. I’m afraid of setting my phone down as I get out my wallet, only to turn around and see it gone. I’m afraid of losing Jake in a crowd and realizing that he doesn’t have his phone, but he does have the keys. Less rationally, I’m afraid of gunshots going off or a fire breaking out and confirming my suspicion that while everyone else has a fight or flight reflex, I have a deer in headlights reflex. I’m a first world survivor, y’all. When the rules of society break down, I am nothing but a liability.

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All that being said, I can’t imagine trying to keep up with a four-year-old in a crowd like the one at the Saturday night state fair. Jake has enough trouble keeping up with me when I see a really cute dog or a sign boasting chocolate covered cheesecake, but a smaller Belle with fewer inhibitions? She’ll have the power to teleport. Every six months, it seems there’s a national news story of Some Horrible Thing that happened to Some Poor Family, because kids are slippery, y’all. You let go of their hand for ten seconds and a gorilla dies or they get eaten by an alligator. That sounds like the worst night out ever.

The fair is generally inaccessible.
As a rule, with crowds comes congestion and with congestion comes inaccessibility. This is especially true at a festival which takes place among a hodge-podge of buildings of varying ages, over a few square miles. I’m no expert on children. In fact, just last week, I accidentally referred to a customer’s child as “that.” However, it’s my understanding that they’re not known for their ability to wait, that their needs are generally pretty immediate. Weaving through a jam-packed labyrinth of identical stands to find one of the newer buildings, with the cleaner, larger bathrooms, only to wait in line for 10 minutes is tedious when I’m the one who has to pee.

Every time I’m around my four-year-old niece, it seems she needs something, be it a drink of water, a snack, help in the bathroom, or someone to scold her older sisters for making her fake cry. By the time one problem has been resolved, another arises and that’s just at Naunnie’s and Pa’s house, where all life’s necessities are immediately available. Navigating the fair to find a water fountain, a clean bathroom, a changing table, a spare diaper or wipes, a cheap snack, air conditioning… with the urgency of a child’s needs sounds wretched. I’m not even sure where one fits fun into this real life adaptation of a bad cell phone game.

The fair is way too expensive.
I admit, these problems aren’t exactly unique to the state fair. They could easily be replicated at a street festival or the local medieval fair… but entry to those and many of their attractions are free. The state fair costs $12 per person for admission alone. As for food, a single ear of corn is $4, a piece of chocolate covered cheesecake is $7, a slice of pizza is $10. The activities a child might actually enjoy, such as carnival games and face painting might only cost a few dollars, but they also only last a few minutes. Thirty minutes of games could easily add up to fifty or sixty dollars. Add in rides that fold into boxes for easy travel, an entirely separate issue, and you’re looking at another thirty or forty dollars for wrist bands, per family member. I don’t even have an estimate for the random junk sold at every stand.

Even if you can budget a couple of hundred dollars on this family outing, while an older child might enjoy such things, I’d wager they’d also enjoy a family day at the park and a new video game, a trip to an amusement park and pizza, or a family trip to the drive in and burgers, all cheaper combinations. Regardless, a smaller child tires easily, overheats easily, melts down easily. It’s fair to assume that being dragged around a crowded fairground in 100 plus heat is not fun for them, in addition to all the reasons it doesn’t sound fun for the parents.

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It’s of course possible to forgo fairground luxuries or pick and choose. Jake got his ticket for free from work, while I bought mine in advance to save $4. We ate everything that caught our eyes and bought some soup mixes as planned, but rode no rides and played no games. We people watched, ate, and walked around looking at stalls. It was a lot of fun… for grownups. At one point, I heard a frustrated dad tell his nine or ten-year-old daughter, “Well, I’m sorry you think you’re bored, but…” Of course she’s bored! You’re dragging her through buildings full of grownup stuff, when there’s a carnival on the other side of the fairgrounds! The best behaved child would grumble about that. I totally support not blowing all of your money on such frivolity, but I also support finding something more fun for your child to do than follow at your heels, as you repeatedly tell her no.

Perhaps I’d understand this choice of family fun better, were Jake and I in a different income bracket, but it ain’t exactly the Kardashians who frequent the state fair. It’s pretty consistently a middle income form of entertainment. Most attendants don’t have the money to do everything and even if they did, that doesn’t negate all of the other reasons taking children to the fair sounds like a terrible time. A customer once told me that she hated to travel when her children were young, because she always felt like she was playing house, just without the comforts of home. That’s how I feel when I travel, now and that’s how I imagine I’d feel taking kids to the fair.

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