Now in its 118th year, the Missouri State Fair is beckoning residents to "Come Home" and enjoy all the state has to offer when the annual event opens its gates Thursday in Sedalia.
Kari Mergen, State Fair marketing director, said the fair's theme, used for the past three years, has really resonated with people, old and young.
"It's also a call to action that if you haven't been here to please come and see us," Mergen said.
She said for so many fair-goers, especially those who camp out and those who participate in different aspects of the fair, the annual event is almost like a family reunion. Camping at the fairgrounds opened Friday, Mergen said, and there was a line of campers waiting to get in.
"That whole campground is truly a family. It's kind of crazy how they all come together and formed these friendships within the atmosphere of coming to the fair every year," she said. "If you walk through the livestock barns, you'll see that same kind of sense of family. People kind of grow up at the fair every summer."
Mergen said fair staff works hard to try to bring something new to the event each year, from bands to activities to new ways to honor different Missouri residents.
"We hope that people who come to the fair for that are noticing our efforts to try to change that up every year," she said.
This year, the State Fair will pay homage to Scott Joplin, who lived in Sedalia, which hosts the Scott Joplin Ragtime Festival each year. Mergen said the fair will feature different ragtime performers as part of their free entertainment.
"I think that's a pretty cool tribute to that event that happens here, being the home of ragtime," Mergen said.
Another new featured act will be iFlip, an acrobatic thrill show, which Mergen said was booked as part of an effort to change things up, considering the fair included a circus for many years.
And staff have introduced a new Military Flag Retreat Ceremony, which will be done daily and in addition to the fair's existing Military Day, which is set for Aug. 11. Mergen said the ceremony will include lowering the flag that's been flown over the fairgrounds for the day, having soldiers from the National Guard fold it and present to the veteran or active duty military member who is being honored and their family. Mergen said the fair took nominations for who to honor, eventually narrowing it down to 11 people from across the state.
"It's going to be a pretty cool thing," she said, calling the new feature a "feel-good patriotic ceremony."
"I'm hoping that word of mouth will get that out, and we'll have a bigger and bigger crowd every time."
Other new events include honoring the 40th birthday of the Happy Meal through a partnership with McDonald's; the 75th birthday of Smokey the Bear, which Mergen noted actually fell on the same day as Missouri Department of Conservation Day; the 40th anniversary of the Pork Place, which she said has always been "an iconic place to eat;" and the 20th anniversary of the Gerken Dairy Center, which will again feature a butter sculpture of Bessie the Cow, which will also have a birthday cake for the occasion.
Mergen said there's still some competitions that can be entered, and she encouraged people to check out mostatefair.com to find out what's still available and how to enter. She noted the fair typically has 28,000-30,000 entries every year, from livestock to competitive exhibits.
Because of flooding and other weather-related issues this year, the fair board opted to waive all late fees for competitions, which Mergen said was very well-received.
"Everyone was impacted by that (flooding), and we wanted to try to help those people so that they could come to the fair," she said.
When asked whether those circumstances have affected the number of entries this year, Mergen said the last report she heard had indicated that entries were down a little, but not as much as anticipated. While noting they won't really know until the fair itself, Mergen said staff are hopeful and confident things will hold fairly steady.
Mergen said she would encourage people to check out some of the things they've never seen before at the fair, emphasizing how many fair-goers go for the same thing each year and tend not to change things up.
"I encourage you to try something new every year don't be afraid to veer off the path that you normally take, and you're going to find something cool around the corner," Mergen said. "We like to say that you can't possibly see it all in one day, but we'd love for you to try."
This year, the fair staff has been pushing a "plan your visit" messaging campaign, which encourages people to visit mostatefair.com to check out everything from ticket prices to information on attractions and specific events, as well as daily schedules.
"If they're looking for comprehensive information about the fair, that's the place to go," Mergen said.
She noted staff are eager to help, so anyone with questions can contact them through the Missouri State Fair Facebook page or by email or phone.
Advance gate admission tickets are available online through Wednesday at $8 for an adult ticket. Advance tickets are also available at the Missouri State Fair box office, Break Time convenience stores, Orscheln Farm & Home stores and Menards. After Wednesday, tickets will be available at $10 for an adult ticket, $7 for those age 60 and older, and $2 for those ages 6-12. Children age 5 and younger are admitted free.
Mergen encouraged people to also look at the gate admission specials and coupons, noting there's nearly one for each day of the fair and some will offer a better deal than even the advance ticket pricing. For example, she said, on Thursday, which is opening day, gate admission will be $4 for everyone age 13 and older.
"Definitely check that out and kind of weigh your options for how you're going to get the best deal or the best bang for your buck," she said.
The State Fair runs through Aug. 18. For more information, visit mostatefair.com.