It had been over two years since carnival rides, games and vendors took to the Alameda County Fairgrounds for its signature event. Getting the 2021 event off the ground this month was itself a wild ride for organizers, amid uncertainty about what developments and guidelines this stage of the COVID-19 pandemic would lead to.
"It's been the experience of a lifetime getting this fair up and running," Tiffany Cadrette, marketing and communications manager for the Pleasanton fairgrounds, said during an interview on opening weekend of the fair's special fall run from Oct. 22-31.
Last Saturday night at the 2021 Alameda County Fair was a novelty in the present day, for its sheer sense of normality. Crowds gathered from throughout the county, with all of the typical sights, smells and sounds of any county fair, including shrieks of delight and terror from children on carnival rides echoing throughout grounds.
For fair organizers such as Cadrette, the hard work paid off opening weekend, who was able to revel in the joy of seeing the venue's signature event return. "People are out doing something they feel is part of their tradition," Cadrette said.
The loss of annual events such as the county fair during pandemic lockdowns and restrictions was significant in the community, Cadrette noted.
In addition, the return of the county fair has been a "reunion of sorts" for vendors who typically travel the fair circuit this time of year, and are used to working together at various venues, according to Cadrette. For vendors such as this, the loss of live events during the pandemic meant losing their livelihoods. "It's been a struggle for so many of them to be closed," Cadrette said.
As fair-goers made the most of the unexpectedly clear weather early last Saturday night, staff were bracing themselves for the decidedly strong fall storm heading that way the next day. This cut the fair's opening weekend short as officials decided to close the fair last Sunday, but even tamer rides, such as the skyride, would have been white-knuckle experiences with that day's dramatic winds and rain.
Although last weekend's storm has cleared and fair officials don't expect any other closures, this weekend is set to be distinct from the typical summer fair in another way -- in that it overlaps with Halloween, and just barely misses Dia de los Muertos. This means the opportunity for a distinctly seasonal twist on typical fair offerings, including live pumpkin carvings and a Halloween movie series. Additionally, the county fair overlaps with Pirates of Emerson, an annual "haunted theme park" hosted at the fairgrounds.
While the livestock events and horse races that typically characterize summer fairs were held earlier in the year, at their normal seasonal times, there are still a number of opportunities to interact with farm animals this year. Some of these include pony rides, a petting zoo and the All-Alaskan Racing Pigs.
The fairgrounds is also set to be home to a new, permanent exhibit aimed at showcasing the county's agricultural history. The American Farm Tractor Museum, which had its grand opening at the fair on Tuesday, is aimed at providing an educational resource for local schools, as well as a community gathering space.
The antique tractors hosted by the museum are lovingly restored and maintained by Raul Santiago, the fairgrounds' ground crew supervisor, and vintage machine aficionado.
"Raul has a personal passion for each tractor and takes such good care of them for us," Angel Moore, vice president of business development at the fairgrounds, said in a statement. "He makes sure they are in good working order, details them, and loads and drives them in our community events."
Fair staff such as Santiago and his crew have proven to be all the more valuable this year, when struggles with staffing have become common, officials said. In addition, the switch to a fall event has meant not having the same kind of staffing pool the fair has been able to count on during past summers.
"Hiring was different," Cadrette said. "Typically we have a lot of high school and college students home for the summer."
Nonetheless, Cadrette said organizers had managed to get the event fully staffed this year, thanks in no small part to the help of volunteer efforts organized by local nonprofits.
Looking ahead to the closing weekend of the weather-shortened nine-day fall run, some highlights include Halloween themed movies and live concerts, in addition to the usual fair offerings such as carnival rides, food, vendors and a range of exhibits.
The fair's Halloween Movie Series will feature "The Haunted Mansion" this Friday night, "The Addams Family" (2019) on Saturday, and "Hotel Transylvania" on Sunday. The nightly movies start at 6 p.m. each night of the fair, set amid a growing number of pumpkin art carved live on fair weekends by "Farmer Mike" Vallado.
To close out the fair's nightly concert series at 8 p.m. each night, American funk, rock and soul group WAR is set to take the stage this Friday night, followed by The Garth Guy: The Ultimate Garth Brooks Tribute Show on Saturday (rescheduled after the weather cancellation on Oct. 24) and cover band Journey Revisited wrapping up the series on Sunday.
Also on Sunday, runners are set to take off from the fairgrounds at 8:30 a.m. for the 28th annual Halloween Spirit Run.
One unexpected benefit of last Sunday's closure, Cadrette noted, was that the Dia de los Muertos celebration, planned for last weekend, is now rescheduled for just a day before the annual tradition officially falls (Nov. 1).
This Sunday, the rescheduled Dia de los Muertos celebration will feature performances by In Lak'ech Danza Azteca, Mariachi San Francisco, Grupo Folklorico Yolotli Guerrerence and Banda La Peligrosa.
The Alameda County Fair is set to run through Halloween, from 3-10 p.m. today and 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. Tickets, a full schedule of festivities, COVID-19 rules, and transportation and parking information are available at annual.alamedacountyfair.com.