From giant cabbage to cheap tickets: tips for navigating the Alaska State Fair

Mike Dunham
Nizhonii Amaktoolik, 6, splashes around in a waterborne hamster ball at the Tons of Fun Entertainment booth on the purple trail of the Alaska State Fair on Friday, August 22, 2014, in Palmer. Kids stayed dry while rolling and bumping around the inflatable pool.
Erik Hill / Alaska Dispatch News
From left siblings Nizhonii, Josephine and Albert Amaktoolik take a turn in waterborne hamster balls at the Tons of Fun Entertainment booth on the purple trail of the Alaska State Fair on Friday, August 22, 2014, in Palmer.
Erik Hill / Alaska Dispatch News
Competitors ages six to 12 months toe the line in the first heat of the Diaper Derby held in the KTVA 11 News Corral at the Alaska State Fair on Friday, August 22, 2014, in Palmer. The young athletes recovered from the start to proceed to sit, play and tap each other for 10 minutes before one bothered to make his way the few feet to a waiting parent at the finish line.
Erik Hill / Alaska Dispatch News
Parents stationed at the finish line try to coax crawlers ages six to 12 months away from the starting line at the Diaper Derby held Friday afternoon, August 22, 2014, in the KTVA 11 News Corral of the Alaska State Fair.
Erik Hill / Alaska Dispatch News
Irelynn Borum, 4, of Palmer, watches the crowds pass by the 4-H Barn at the Alaska State Fair. The Alaska State Fair drew a crowd on its opening day, Thursday, August 21, 2014, in Palmer. The Fair continues through September 1.
Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News
Marvin Weeks, left, and Bobby Berg compete in the axe throw in the Fred Scheer's Lumberjack Show on Friday, August 22, 2014, at the Alaska State Fair. Weeks, representing Camp Wasilla, defeated Berg, representing Camp Palmer.
Erik Hill / Alaska Dispatch News
Sam Fenton, representing Camp Anchorage, chops his way to a win in springboard chopping in the Fred Scheer's Lumberjack Show on Friday, August 22, 2014, at the Alaska State Fair.
Erik Hill / Alaska Dispatch News
Ruthan Stitt pets her six-month-old pig Bonnie in the barn at the Alaska State Fair. Stitt says she'll enter the pig in several 4H competitions, including breeding, showmanship and market divisions. The Alaska State Fair drew a crowd on its opening day, Thursday, August 21, 2014, in Palmer. The Fair continues through September 1.
Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News
Devin Hall gives a scratch on the head to livestock at in the barn at the Alaska State Fair. The Alaska State Fair drew a crowd on its opening day, Thursday, August 21, 2014, in Palmer. The Fair continues through September 1.
Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News
Ripper Moore, left, and Josh Avery joust Thursday afternoon during a Knights of Valour demonstration at the Alaska State Fair. The Alaska State Fair drew a crowd on its opening day, Thursday, August 21, 2014, in Palmer. The Fair continues through September 1.
Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News
Ripper Moore rides Maximus and prepares to joust during a Knights of Valour demonstration at the Alaska State Fair. The Alaska State Fair drew a crowd on its opening day, Thursday, August 21, 2014, in Palmer. The Fair continues through September 1.
Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News
Aerial performer Eve Diamond performs with the Cirque Mechanics group on the opening day of the fair. Cirque Mechanics will perform three times a day at the Fair. The Alaska State Fair drew a crowd on its opening day, Thursday, August 21, 2014, in Palmer. The Fair continues through September 1.
Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News
The Alaska State Fair drew a crowd on its opening day, Thursday, August 21, 2014, in Palmer. The Fair continues through September 1.
Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News
Sabrena Combs fields questions at the Ask Me About The Fair station along the green trail at the Alaska State Fair on Friday, August 22, 2014, in Palmer. Combs coordinates volunteers for the two stations staffed to serve fairgoers looking for booths, events and shows.
Erik Hill / Alaska Dispatch News

You have plenty of ways to soil your hands at the Alaska State Fair. You've got animals, dust and mud, sticky confections and condiments dripping from snacks -- and that’s just what happens before you even get out of the car. But a new feature called Sudsy’s Barn, “a play-based, interactive hand-washing station,” aims to make scrubbing your knuckles one of the happiest reasons to go to the fair.

Sudsy’s Barn is the brainchild of Elisa Hays of Puyallup, Washington. On a promotional video, she says, “Why can’t we get people, and especially kids, to wash their hands? Because it isn’t fun, that’s why!”

So she set about making it fun, using her background in children’s entertainment to create a cross between Disneyland and your bathroom sink.

The unit is like a small, self-contained trailer, said state fair communications director Dean Phipps. It has cartoon-like sculptures of critters who spew water and health tips and a little bit of sass. “Hey! You missed a spot,” hectors a horse. They sing the “Alphabet Song,” which lasts for the 20 seconds required for a good cleansing. In case you forget the lyrics, the alphabet is posted right above the station.

“We saw it. We liked it,” said Phipps. “The animals talk to you. You put your hands out there and the water comes out of a cow’s udder. You put your hands over by the chicken eggs and they get air dried.

“It’s really popular with kids. In fact, parents have to pull their kids away.”

Videos show squealing youngsters rubbing their hands gleefully and industriously for far longer than 20 seconds.

The attractions are serious business in the Lower 48 because of cases of human-animal disease transfer. That has not been an issue in Alaska but “We were trying to be proactive about the safety,” said Phipps. “Some fairs have had real problems. They’ve had to shut down their petting zoos.”

In the Lower 48, Hays’ company rents out units that travel around the country. Since Alaska is a bit off the circuit, the fair arranged to build a unit “just for us,” Phipps said. Funded by the state Department of Health and Social Services and the Rasmuson Foundation, it’s the first independently owned Sudsy’s Barn in the country.

It’s located at the farm exhibits building, not coincidentally near the petting zoo.

Here are some other thoughts for fairgoers to consider.

Why pay full price?

Gate admission for adults this year is $13 Monday-Thursday and $15 Friday-Sunday, $9 and $10 for those 65 and older or ages 6-12, and free for kids 5 and younger. But even though pre-opening and season pass discounts ended on Aug. 20, you have a few other ways to cut costs.

Get through the gate between noon and 2 p.m. on Thursday, Aug. 21, and the ticket is just $2. Kids 12 and under are free on Friday, Aug. 22 and Saturday, Aug. 23; a donation of a couple of cans of food for the food bank is requested on those days. If you’re military, you can get discounted tickets at Information Tickets and Travel on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson.

Everyone gets $2 off on Thursday, Aug. 28, when they wear their “Alaska Grown” T-shirt. And “Buddy Days,” when carnival rides are essentially two for one, take place from noon to 5 p.m. on Tuesday and Wednesday, Aug. 26 and 27.

Are we there yet?

It costs $5 to park a car for one day, which isn’t so bad if you have a minivan with seven fairgoers. But what grates on people most is the conga line of vehicles that can back up all the way to the Parks-Glenn Highway intersection on busy days.

The best way around the traffic is to take the Alaska Railroad from Anchorage. It’s $12 round trip, $8 for children 3-11. That doesn’t include fair admission, and parking near the Anchorage depot is a lot more expensive than parking at the fair -- you may want to find someone to drop you off. Several departure times had sold out at this writing but some seats remained on all 4:30 p.m. departures from Anchorage on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays of the fair, as well as the 12:30 departure on Monday, Sept. 1. A few seats were also left on the 12:30 p.m. departure on Friday, Aug. 29, but they go fast and may, in fact, be gone by the time you read this sentence. Call 265-2494 to book.

Taking the Valley Mover bus from Anchorage, a $10 round trip, won’t save much time, as it’s about a three-hour ride. But it may spare you some road rage. It leaves the Anchorage Transit Center at 8:55 a.m. Monday-Friday, except Labor Day, with stops at the Anchorage Museum and Northway Mall. If you can drive to the Trunk Road Park-N-Ride or the Palmer Fred Meyer you can take the MASCOT (Mat-Su Community Transit) bus to the fair for free from Monday, Aug. 25 through Friday, Aug. 29.

You can find details at matsutransit.com and valleymover.org.

Groovy tunes and other free shows

Some big shows are at the fair this year -- Flo Rida, Bachman & Turner with Blue Öyster Cult and those dudes from "Duck Dynasty," to name a few. But fairgoers who don't want to shell out the $30-$75 for tickets to the big Borealis Theater shows are in luck. You can watch everything from acrobatics to rock bands and magic shows at the stages scattered around the fairgrounds for free. 

Other than the Borealis, the fair has these main stages: the Colony Stage, Sluicebox Stage, Bluebonnet and Brokenlance Tavern. Local-grown country act Redhead Express (originally from Palmer), high-energy tumblers Zuzu African Acrobats and the musical comedy band Riders in the Sky will be some of the highlights on the Colony Stage. The Sluicebox lineup includes a cappella group Home Free, country artist Bryan White and Alaska rockers The Whipsaws (not to mention perennial fair fixture Hobo Jim). The Bluebonnet Stage is for the more acoustic side of things, including the Carhartt Brothers, Sarah Peacock and Ginger Boatwright. The Brokenlance Tavern will offer those over the age of 21 the chance to sip a beer or wine and listen to some entertainment (accompanied minors allowed only until 6 p.m.).

New at the fair this year is The Gathering Place, a venue to showcase Alaska Native culture. It will present drumming, dance groups and music over the course of the fair, including Jack Dalton and Raven's Radio Hour and singer Desja Eagle Tail​ of the Crow Nation. 

Dahlias and dinosaurs

Everyone has their favorite fair exhibits, making a beeline to such perennial attractions as the displays of award-winning giant gladioli, dahlias, begonias and other Alaska flowers in the Hoskins Exhibits building. Or perhaps it's the ever-popular livestock barn filled with chickens, rabbits, sheep and other such critters. A petting zoo lets you get up close and personal with your barnyard friends (after which, head for Sudsy’s Barn; see above). If, as often happens, a sow has recently given birth to a brood of piglets, expect a crowd to be oohing and shooting photos at that pen.

But the biggest beasts on display won’t be either alive or particularly cuddly; they’ll be the replicated prehistoric lizards in the “Age of the Dinosaurs” interactive museum exhibit at the Don Sheldon Events Center. The dinosaur exhibit makes its debut at the fair this year. 

Fair food

Alaska's fair might stand out for its record-busting vegetables but when it comes to edibles, people probably think first of those fried, sugary, quick bites that can be picked up at the concession stands. There's no better excuse to eat foods skewered on a stick or slung into a cone, and back this year are the usual fixtures, cotton candy and elephant ears, enormous turkey legs and deep-fried halibut included. Some delicious and healthier options will be on hand. Pristine Products will serve fresh oysters from Prince William Sound, and the Red Beet will have fresh fruit and vegetable juices, as well as gluten free-items. At the new Gathering Place, fairgoers can sample salmon prepared in an open pit accompanied by Native-inspired side dishes. 

But if you're in the mood to let go, we say -- go for it. It's fair time just once a year, so grab some deep-fried pickles and enjoy the moment.

Metal and muscle

You pay extra to get into several of the special events but the rodeo, this year on Aug. 23 and 24, is always worth it. For one thing, you get to sit down. For another, these guys are riding bulls! Motor sports are another big draw, like the demolition derbies, freestyle exhibitions and mud race.

But the extreme heavy metal event most likely to set jaws dropping is the “Knights of Valor” jousting at the France Equestrian Center. Competitors in full suits of armor will charge at each other in the full-contact sport that leaves all others in the dust. “No scripts, no choreography and no airbags,” says the blurb. They’ll cross lances in full-charge tournaments daily at 6 p.m. and do demos around the fairgrounds at other times during the day.

Who wants sauerkraut?

Every great state fair has its star attraction. Dallas has Big Tex. Iowa has the sculpted Butter Cow. In Alaska we have King Cabbage (or maybe that’s Queen Cabbage; it’s not easy to tell). Growers from the Mat-Su and beyond vie to grow the biggest cabbage in the world and maybe even break the record of 138 pounds set by Scott Robb at the fair in 2012. The 19th Annual Giant Cabbage Weigh-Off will take place at 7 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 29, at the Farm Exhibits. Feeling lucky? You can bet on how much the winner will weigh in the Palmer Rotary Club Cabbage Classic, a split-the-pot deal to benefit Rotarian scholarships -- as well as the savvy best-guesser.

You'll have plenty of other big veggies to gawk at. The Midnight Sun Great Pumpkin Weigh-Off is at 2 p.m. on Aug. 26. This is a fairly new competition but Alaska-grown pumpkins are now topping 1,000 pounds and it may be just a matter of time before one of them sets a new world record, 2,032 pounds.

Correction: This story has been updated to include the dates of operation for MASCOT's free fair bus. 

Alaska State Fair

Hours: Noon-10 p.m. Monday-Friday, 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Saturday-Sunday. 10 a.m.-8 p.m. on Labor Day, Sept. 1

Tickets: $9-$15 with some discounts available

Location: 2075 Glenn Highway (at Mile 40)

Phone: 745-4827

For detailed schedule, a map of the fairgrounds and other information, visit alaskastatefair.org