Kick off summertime fun with a trip to the San Diego County Fair. Sign the kids up for a zany contest, grab some sticky cotton candy, ride the carousel, enjoy ocean views from the ferris wheel and save money all the while! We’ve got tips for how to enjoy the fair on a budget that will leave you with good, old-fashioned memories instead of the regret of an empty wallet. Read on, then mark your calendar. The Fair runs June 1-July 4.

photo: kPluto via Flickr

Admission: Score Free or Cheap Tickets

Here are some great ways to save on Fair admission for your family:

Kids Days: Kids 12 and younger receive free admission on Kids’ Days: June 1, 8, 15, 22, and 29. Kids 5 and under are free every day of the fair.

Military Free Day: Active members of the military are welcome to enjoy free admission to the Fair on opening day Friday, June 1. (Gates open at 4 p.m.) Buy tickets ahead of time on base. For detailed information click here.

Read Your Way Into the Fair: Kids 12 and under can earn free admission any day of the Fair by presenting a reading certificate signed by a teacher or librarian. All they need to do is read ten books on their own or with an adult. Can’t make it to a local library? Download the Fair’s reading certificate.

Albertsons/Vons Tickets: Buy $5 tickets ahead of time at Albertsons or Vons for all family members––valid June 1, 2 and 6 only.

Good to Know: Click here for more great discounts, including paying one admission price for all 26 days of the Fair.

photo: Bill Gracey via Flickr

Kids Zone

Kids will be kids and beg to go on the rides, especially in the Kids Zone, a special area designed for toddlers and young ones, that boasts more than 40 age-appropriate rides. You may want to purchase a ride wristband (see info below), but there are also plenty of ride packages available, including a Costco Savings Pack and a Ride Fanatic Pack. Get the details here.

Good to Know: If you’re an early bird, be aware Kids Zone rides don’t open until noon except on weekends and July 4.

photo: Nathan Rupert via Flickr

Pepsi Pay-One-Price Ride Day Wristbands: These wristbands cost $38 each and allow unlimited access to Fun Zone and Kids Zone rides during select days and times. $38 may seem like a lot of money, but regular tickets add up and most rides require three to six tickets each. Also, kids who don’t meet height requirements must be accompanied by a paying adult – so make sure you buy enough tickets! Save an additional $5 on wristband purchases by using a coupon with purchase at 7-11. Be sure to check the website to verify which times of day wristbands are valid. Wristbands are sold on-site and online. This year wristbands are valid on every Wednesday and Thursday in June.

photo: Peyri Herrera via Flickr

Free Family Fun

If games and rides aren’t your thing, check out our recommended free, family-friendly activities. If you enter through the main O’Brien Gate, one of the first things to see are the animal exhibits. Check out CA Grown, located in the Wyland Building where you’ll find a variety of farm animals big and small and the popular petting zoo all in one spot.

Let the Kids Roam Free in Family Funville
Head toward the infield farm exhibit and look for the fun-filled Wild West Turkey Stampede where turkeys race around a track following after a remote control monster truck. Don’t miss this hilarious show!

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A new daily competition of pitch ‘n win horseshoes can be found adjacent to the Kid Zone Rides. Wear your boots and pitch some horseshoes with the family daily.

The Farm is the perfect place for kids to run around. If you love to garden, find ideas for growing vegetables and saving water. There are many fun exhibits for the whole family here. New this year, check out the Eco Adventure Scavenger Hunt offered weekdays from noon-3 p.m. Learn ways to save our earth as you travel around the Farm hunting down stamp stations and earning a golden award. Learn how composting with worms can go from gross to grand while improving your soil. Encounter exotic animals up-close. Explore a free flight butterfly enclosure. The farm also holds daily old-fashioned, family-fun games like a corn husking contest.

The World of Horses exhibit features more than 15 breeds of horses from all over the world. You might even spot a unicorn this year! Future cowgirls and cowboys can also try their hand with a lasso and demonstrations take place daily.

photo: Penny Meyer via Flickr

Little crafters or cooks can enter a 1-day contest and showcase anything from homemade slime to candy jewelry. Just bring your item to the Creative Youth Exhibit between 11 a.m. and 1:20 p.m. on the day of the contest, along with the entry form. New this year, Creative Youth will offer on-the-spot contests where supplies will be provided. Contests range from Gingerbread Houses to Floral Design to Cupcake Decorating.

Good to Know: Any youth contest participant will receive free entry to the Fair on the day of their contest (excluding On the Spot Contests). Everyone’s a winner!

The Creative Youth tent is more than just a youth art exhibit (though it’s so cool to look for a friend’s artwork here). This year’s exhibit includes daily stage presentations and hands-on art experiences with groups ranging from the Polymer Clay Guild to Golden Crow Studio. There will also be a few feature events including the Preschool STEM Expo on June 9th and Art and Literacy Day on June 20th.

photo: It’s Holly via Flickr

Save Some Dough: Pack a Picnic, Spring for a Snack

Save some cash by bringing your own lunch to the Fair. No questions are asked if you tote in outside food for picky eaters, snack lovers, or for those with food allergies.

If you don’t bring food from home, look for the ‘Kids’ Meal Deal’ sign at various food booths where kids can score an entrée, side dish and soft drink for a reasonable price. Additionally, kids will get a free piece of Coco’s pie if they participate in the daily Pie Eating Contest.

Before the day is over, spring for a treat. Can’t decide which Fair food is your favorite? Explore taster-sized portions for $3. Most food booths participate, offering one or more menu items. Available every Thursday between noon and 5 p.m. Or, wander into this year’s Themed exhibit “How Sweet It Is” near the O’Brien Gate and sample free chocolates, caramels and jelly beans. Sweet!

Good to know: Only factory-sealed drinks or empty water bottles are allowed into the Fair. Enjoy your picnic inside the beautiful Paul Ecke Garden Show where you’ll find plenty of tables, chairs and benches under the shade. Plus, you’ll be surrounded by landscaping to inspire ideas for your next garden makeover and there are plenty of kid-friendly areas for little ones to explore.

photo: Marc Emer via Flickr

Save Money on Parking

The convenience of parking at the fairground costs $15 cash. But you can also park for free every day at Horsepark. Shuttles run continuously from one hour before gates open to one hour following gate closure and drop off in front of the main O’Brien Gate. On weekends and select days, park free at MiraCosta College and Torrey Pines High School with shuttle service too. For more information about parking shuttles, click here. For public transportation options, including the Fair Tripper pass, a great value which includes Fair admission and a ride on the Coaster, click here.

The San Diego County Fair runs June 1 through July 4, 2018 (closed Mondays and Tuesdays in June.)

San Diego County Fair
2260 Jimmy Durante Blvd.
Del Mar, Ca 92014
Online: sdfair.com

––Cherie Gough

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