A Court-Ordered Independent Midway Enables San Diego County Fair To Return After Two Year Hiatus

Ten weeks before the San Diego County Fair opened an opening day was not a sure bet. The problem wasn’t COVID this year, it was midway contracting. Finally in April, an interim legal truce was declared and the fair reverted back to an independent midway for the 2022 event and all parties concerned focused on reviving a Southern California tradition after a two-year hiatus.

Bolstered by a $1.5 million advertising budget – and a clever marketing tagline that invoked community fellowship and renewal – “Heroes, Re-Unite!” – the fair experienced strong attendance, robust spending and a welcomed return. “The smiles on the faces of fairgoers says it all,” said Katie Mueller, Chief Operating Officer at the Del Mar Fairgrounds. “ Guests are telling us how excited they are to have the Fair back, as an annual trip to the Fair is a favorite summertime family tradition that they’ve truly missed these past few years.”

Court Drama

Behind the scenes, the smiles were far fewer. The San Diego County Fair – one of the largest independent midways on the west coast – wanted to lose its independence and award this lucrative contract to the highest bidder. The RFP process for a 5-year agreement, valued upwards of $80 million, began in 2018 and has always been a bidding duel between Ray Cammack Shows (RCS) and Talley Amusements, both long time contractors at the fair.

The pandemic closed the vast majority of California fairs for two years, and due to an RFP process gone sideways, seemed on the brink of remaining shuttered in 2022 as well. The 22nd District Agricultural Association – the board governing the San Diego Fair, one of the largest in the state of California – awarded the midway contract to RCS. Talley Amusements filed a lawsuit alleging that the fair’s RFP process was corrupt, which included depositions with sworn testimony that Carlene Moore, CEO
of the San Diego County Fair, altered RFP scores to favor RCS, violating California law.

In April, San Diego Superior Court Judge Kenneth Medel issued an injunction blocking a contract the fair granted to Ray Cammack Shows. Talley Amusements brought the lawsuit, alleging that the 22nd District Agricultural Association, which operates the Del Mar Fairgrounds, circumvented a competitive bidding process in
favor of RCS. Medel ruled against the fairgrounds, stating that 22DAA “has not followed the procedures that it adopted and advertised for the bidding process.”

The Talley lawsuit against the association continues – the injunction enjoins the contract, allowing for the temporary fix of an independent midway with the bulk of the rides from RCS and Talley. A handful of other carnivals, most of whom have been perennial midway providers at the San Diego event, filled in the gaps. The midway featured 76 rides, which includes both FunZone and KidsZone. The presentation was divided mainly between Talley and RCS, although some of the companies were subcontractors under Talley’s RFP bid. Top overall grossing rides for the fair were: Skyride; Big Wheel; Crazy Mouse; G Force; and RaveWave.
“We operated an independent midway, as we had in years past, with a total of 8 independent operators,” said a representative of the San Diego County Fair. “All parties were able to put that aside in the interest of having a successful fair and midway and that is exactly what happened. “Midway revenue was up compared to 2019.”

Theory & Practice

“Revenue was up,” said Mary Talley of Talley Amusements.

“Some of the increase was due to the rise in ticket prices. Attendance was down, because they cut out six days.”

In general, the bifurcated midway operationally resembled San Diego’s pre-pandemic independent midway, if a bit more territorial. The most problematic issue concerned layout and the end result was more simultaneous than symbiotic. “One side was us, the other side was RCS basically,” said Talley.

Developing operational and layout plans required several ZOOM meeting hours. Most California fairs closed in 2020 and 202, but knew there would be a fair in the summer of 2022, providing more than an entire year to restore operations. The San Diego RFP legal controversy not just sharpened tensions, but drastically downsized available planning time.

The key component of any midway selection is ride selection, and with little input from the fair, final selection concluded with a one-on-one volleys between two of the largest midway companies in the country. One company picked a ride, then the other company “counter” picked, a process of elimination Talley compared to the NFL Draft. Perhaps unsurprisingly – RCS and Talley have long-had significant-sized footprints on the San Diego midway – they were able to form a midway that would assure the community the county tradition was back better than ever. One of the strongest motivation was that neither fair nor midway providers wanted a third summer of no San Diego midway.

In theory the system worked. In practice, judicial intercession was required after it was discovered that a poor layout inexplicably favored RCS rides with the positioning of ticket booths and other amenities seemed haphazard. “Even to an untrained eye like mine, it was obvious that the none of the booths were close to any of Talley rides,” said John Moot, Attorney for Talley Amusements.

By the third day. the midway layout issue was resolved and the results were eye-popping. The fair reported 2,196,720 midway rides were taken. “This has been a very profitable fair and we love the people of San Diego,” said Talley. “The fairgoers are great and like the song says, it never rains in Southern California. You have a beautiful view of the ocean, who wouldn’t want to be at the San Diego County Fair.”

Not only did the community agree, but they were eating and riding and lingering longer than in 2019. “We had records in food per caps as well as carnival spending,” said the representative of the San Diego County Fair. “Per caps are up, even when considering inflation. Guests stayed longer than ever before. We didn’t experience a typical mid-afternoon changeover. Spending was higher and we attribute that to providing a comfortable experience for our guests.”

Less Fair, Fewer Fairgoers

Total attendance, which was restricted to 50,000 people per day, reached 973,508 (1,531,199 attended in 2019, a drop mainly attributed to reducing the fair to 21 days in 2019 from 27 in 2022.

The fair marketing tagline –“Heroes, Re-Unite!” – was actually a clever re-phrasing of the 2020 theme – “Heroes, Unite!” . That cancelled fair’s marketing was more pop culture oriented but in 2022, it became something more. “Our planned theme for [2020] was celebrating the larger-than-life super heroes from comics to the silver screen. When we started discussing themes for 2022, a celebration of heroes–not only fictional, pop culture super heroes, but the real-life health, frontline, and community heroes we’d all witnessed in our very own communities, just seemed more relevant than ever. Plus, since we’d be welcoming the community back to the fair we’d all missed, the idea of “reuniting” sure felt good.”

The fair combine pop culture with community appreciation. The Hall of Heroes featured interactive super hero exhibits and movie-quality props from the Incredible Hulk, Spiderman, Superman and Batman. Hall of Heroes also recognized 33 community heroes described as “local, real-life heroes–ordinary people who take extraordinary measures to make the world a better place.”

The fair’s marketing budget was $1 million, an increase over the 2019 budget of $937,000. “We continued to see Facebook and Instagram perform highly for engagement,” said the SDCF representative. “More than 30 percent  of the total spend was targeted towards the Hispanic market, with half of that Spanish language media. The campaign was designed to generate nearly 80 million impressions heralding the Fair’s ‘heroic’ return, with multimedia promotional and publicity value expected to exceed 3 million dollars, including extensive news coverage, live broadcasts and appearances, plus on-air and online concert and general admission ticket giveaways on more than twenty radio and television stations.”

Baby Bottled Kool-Aid

The fair featured 110 food concession stands, with appetites being satiated to the tune of $17,737,885, Fair cuisine stats: 27,734 ice cream cones, 10,000 frog legs, 152,924 chocolate-chip cookies, and 6,000 giant baby bottles filled with Kool-Aid. “Chicken Charlies served up a giant baby bottle filled with Kool Aid, it was a huge hit especially with Instagram-loving fairgoers. There was also a “Hot Cheeto” trend, with the fiery snack garnishing burgers, chicken and even shakes.”

Few fairs have had the experience of proceeding under the guidance of a court injunction, but in 2022, at least for 21 days, colleagues who became adversaries turned back to being colleagues again,. “ Predicting the changing needs and desires of the fair-going public after the unprecedented pandemic was the biggest challenge,” said the representative. “ Our goal was to welcome the community back to the party of the year at the San Diego County Fair but also be sensitive to providing a safe and responsible community event. We’re thrilled with the outcome, and we’re already looking forward to next summer!”