County Fairs Lure Guests With Old and New Contests
A blue-ribbon winner at the Alameda County Fair's "diaper derby." (Alameda County Fair)
Things are getting serious at the Family Fun Stage.
It's hot at the Alameda County Fair in Pleasanton -- 96 degrees in the shade. Some competitors gathered under the tent at the Family Fun Stage are showing signs of stress, others are getting downright cranky.
The announcer, Angel Moore, is onstage, reading the rules of the race. “You cannot reach to the baby, the baby has to crawl to you,” she says, “You can't push the baby on, you can't pull and grab the baby. The baby is in charge.”
Yes, they are about to race babies.
But first, to get everyone in the mood, they put on a little circus music. Meanwhile, families start prepping babies to crawl their hearts out.
“Diaper derbies” or “diaper dashes” have a long history at county fairs, and they are making a comeback in California. Fair coordinators around the state are digging up traditional contests like this and searching the Internet for new ones. It is part of an effort to get our attention -- to lure us away from our devices and out to the fairgrounds.
In this diaper derby, babies under 12 months will crawl along the rainbow-colored lanes of a mat, chasing glory -- and a $100 cash prize for their parents.
Ricky Romero is the mom of Giovanni, one of the racers. He's decked out in a red-white-and-blue American flag onesie. His mom thinks he’s got this race in the bag.
Romero says she entered Giovanni into the derby just for fun, but she jokes that it will be good to watch him “destroy all those other babies and crawl as fast as he can.”
The race begins in a half-hour. That gives me some time to tour the fair's other competitions, and they are legion. There is livestock, produce, high school artwork, soap carving, Lego building. The list goes on.
Exhibit coordinator Kari Estabrook says with a laugh, “We have pretty much everything you could imagine.”
Estabrook takes me into the exhibition hall to show me all the crafts that people have submitted for competition. She says the fair is trying to innovate, to keep kids engaged. She scours the Internet for the latest hobbies and trends.
You know what’s big? Duct tape art and Perler beads. Estabrook shows me an Uncle Sam portrait made entirely out of tons of little, colorful, plastic Perler beads all ironed together. Sam looks pretty good in garish technicolor beads.
“This year I added the duct tape and the origami,” Estabrook says. “We did a shoebox float contest, where we turned a shoe box into a float.” For one float, a kid used dozens of tongue depressors to transform his shoebox into a spirited rendition of Noah’s Ark.
Estabrook is consistently surprised, she says. “These people are creative.”
I leave Estabrook to check out the fair's collectibles. They are next door to the exhibition hall and, of course, are also judged.
What is most astonishing about the collections is the variety. There are Norwegian wood carvings, Elvis memorabilia, jade-colored plates, historical family heirlooms, and several different rubber ducky collections. But my personal favorite is a display case filled with all things R2-D2 -- trash cans, Christmas lights, pencil sharpeners.
As I stand there in front of the R2-D2 display case, wondering which company or companies specialize in custom items with the likeness of a robot from a movie made in the '70s, two young boys stop and point in awe at the figurines. Apparently R2-D2 is available as both a cowboy and a Mickey Mouse. Who knew?
The fair includes over 16,000 contest items. Judges work in shifts all day to rate everything that is entered into different competitions.
Clyde Serda is one of the food judges. He just finished tasting 20 different cupcakes -- some traditional, and others unconventional, like this one with wine-flavored frosting. But Serda doesn't eat what he nibbles on. As with wine tasting, Serda spits out what he puts in his mouth.
“You would get palate fatigue if you eat it all,” Serda says. “This way you can continue going and going and going.”
OK, it is time -- time for the diaper derby to begin.
Back at the Family Fun Stage, the announcer is calling out to a straggling parent, “Do you have your baby, ma’am?” Once they get that one last baby, they will be ready to roll. Uh, crawl.
The parents have split up into callers and droppers. The droppers hold the babies above the starting line. The callers stand on the other side with toys and treats and bottles, all to entice their babies.
The announcer begins the final countdown. The babies are poised. They're ready to race in three, two, one, crawl!
And the babies just sit there. Some start to cry, others stop and play or stare in confusion at the cheering crowd. After several moments of no significant movement, a grandpa breaks the rules and begins gently whacking one baby on the bottom. It is utter chaos. But out of the chaos comes Giovanni Romero. He is wailing with all his might and speeding toward his mom.
After the race, Giovanni is red-faced from crying. But it is not over. He has to race several more times. His extended family takes him to the corner in between heats, fanning and sprinkling him with water, prepping him for the next crawl.
In the finals, though, Giovanni comes up short. A boy named Brady wins the whole shebang by a mile.
After Brady's victory, his mom tries to get him to talk to me, the man with a microphone.
“Can you say 'yay?' ” she asks him, “Can you say 'yay'? Can you say 'uh oh'? Can you say 'uh oh'? Say 'uh oh.' ”
Instead of using his words, Brady gives my microphone a little wet kiss. It's a fitting farewell to the end of his first and last baby race.