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Weirdest, wildest turn out for N.C. State Fair

It's Friday night, and the Pumpkin Princess and her friend Sam the Simple Scarecrow have just finished explaining why they left Cousin Cletus at home on the farm.

It must be time for the North Carolina State Fair.

This year's festival, which is running through Oct. 23 in Raleigh, boasts the event's usual crazy characters, delicious foods and kid-friendly games.

But the fair was plagued with controversy before it began. The company Wade Shows, in its first experience running the midway, had only 61 of 111 rides that had passed the state's inspection by late Thursday.

Ron Weber, director of public relations for Wade, attributed the failures to North Carolina's 100-percent law. The law stipulates a ride may only be open if every part has been found mechanically sound by a nationally certified inspector.

Weber said the law imposes an extraordinarily high standard on ride operators. "If the knob on the radio is broken off, would you be allowed to drive the car?" he asked.

Questions about ride safety may have kept some people away over the past few days. Attendance Friday and Saturday was down 15 percent from the opening days last year. "Business was way slower than it should have been," said Robin Brindamour, a Wade employee running a game booth, noting that only 200 patrons had tried her game.

After an E. coli outbreak at the event last year, the petting zoo was a focus of concern, too. Brian Long, director of the fair's press office, said a variety of measures have been taken to ensure the children's safety, including increased multilingual signage, new portable sinks and barn staff to monitor the area.

He pointed to rising gas prices and cloudy weather as other possible reasons for the smaller crowd. "I don't know if the rides have anything to do with it; we did a survey and the number one reason people come is the food," Long said.

And food is plentiful. The Apex Lions Club station offers "the best food you ever done put your mouth on." Row after row of stands hawk carnival standbys like popcorn, cotton candy and soda along with more uncommon North Carolina favorites, including alligator-on-a-stick and corn-on-the-cob still in the husk.

Visitors can also ogle at such agricultural feats as an 854-pound pumpkin and a 206-pound watermelon or check out the prize-winners in eclectic categories such as best pickles, sauces and meatloaf.

No fewer than two booths advertise the world's smallest horses, and opportunities abound to see unicorn cows and "Angel the Snake Child." Terrifying children daily is Big Willie, a 1,360-pound alligator who is almost 14 feet long and has 88 teeth.

The fair's entertainment schedule is also packed. Headlining acts including singers Lee Ann Rimes and Edwin McCain. Pig and duck races are staged several times daily for the general crowd.

The fair is a huge money-maker for the state, raking in $10 million of revenue last year over only $3.9 million in expenses.

"The fair is so big now it just kind of blows my mind, " said Wanda Loudermilk, who has been selling her Amish Fudge at the fair for 45 years.

Still, she added, after all her years at the fair, "It's just nice to see people with clothes on that fit."

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