Santa Barbara Fair & Expo presents ‘Santa Barbara Rides Again’
After a 15-month hiatus, the familiar shrieks, carnival treats and rides are back at the Earl Warren Showgrounds for the Santa Barbara Fair & Expo’s “Santa Barbara Rides Again” carnival.
The showgrounds looked and felt like pre-pandemic life on Wednesday, as thousands gathered for the fair’s opening night to enjoy a variety of rides, games, live music and food.
The towering Ferris wheel, carousel and traditional carnival games are back in action on the grounds.
And so are the smiles.
The crowd was largely unmasked Wednesday night as fully vaccinated individuals are no longer required to wear face coverings at outdoor events with fewer than 10,000 in attendance, though unvaccinated folks are still required to wear a mask in crowded settings according to state guidelines.
The fair marks the first large-scale outdoor event held in the county as the region inches toward pre-pandemic life. It’s open today from 11 a.m. to midnight, and from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday.
Ben Sprague, the CEO of the Earl Warren Showgrounds board, told the News-Press that hosting the county’s first large event after the pandemic is a big responsibility. Yet he’s excited to be back hearing the shrieks from people on rides and seeing everyone’s smiling faces.
“It’s really neat to be the first to be able to have (this event),” Mr. Sprague told the News-Press. “We get to kind of throw the coming out (of the pandemic) party for Santa Barbara. And the best part for me, honestly, is what I call the happy screams. When you walk around and you hear the folks on the rides, there’s screaming, but they’re such happy screams.”
With the state easing guidelines for masking and distancing in recent weeks, Mr. Sprague said he is hoping for a record turnout as families begin flocking back to traditional, large-scale events.
“We already feel like we have a record turnout already, just because you can feel the energy in the air,” Mr. Sprague said. “So we feel honored. And it’s also a big responsibility, because we want to make sure that (since) we are the first big event since the pandemic in Santa Barbara County, we want to honor everybody, to make sure everyone feels safe and can show up and enjoy themselves.”
“We expect to stay well within the 10,000-person threshold, but we’re hoping for a record turnout,” he added. “I think that the community is ready, and we’re prepared to handle it.”
On the fair’s opening night, Jenny and Steve Arzberger brought their sons Jax and Kona to enjoy carnival rides and the lively atmosphere. Though the family now lives in Denver, Mrs. Arzberger grew up in Santa Barbara and wanted her kids to experience the carnival she grew up with.
“I came (to the fair) as a child, and I wanted to share that experience with my children,” Mrs. Arzberger told the News-Press.
After a year without massive gatherings, Mrs. Arzberger said being in a crowd of thousands at the event was scary at first, but ultimately, it felt good to be back after a long pandemic year.
“It’s just such a great relief,” she said.
Other carnival goers shared similar sentiments on Wednesday, noting that the return to large crowds is daunting after a year of distancing.
“It’s a little nerve wracking, but also really exciting,” Santa Barbara resident Megan Phillips told the News-Press. She attended the fair with her husband Max and twin sons Colin and Chase. “(It’s) nice to be out to see people smiling, having a good time, and (see) everybody enjoying family or friend time.”
As the region eases into a new normal after the pandemic, Cecilia Tavera, the board president for the 19th District Agricultural Association, told the News-Press that the carnival offers a family-friendly and safe activity for locals looking for some fun.
With the fair in full swing, she’s coined a new phrase.
“If you’re not ready to go to Disneyland, you have the fair in your backyard.”