September 10, 1995 in Nation/World

Fair A Wild Ride For Wallet It’s Thrilling For Family, But Chilling For Money-Conscious Dad

William Miller Staff writer

Working for a newspaper has its perks. Take Friday for example. My editor suggested I take the family to the fair.

“All expenses paid,” he said, patting me on the back.

This sounded suspicious, but interesting.

Just the other day, I was discussing the opening of the Spokane Interstate Fair with my wife and two sons. They wanted to go. I looked into my wallet and groaned.

“Next year,” I said.

Eyes rolled like slot machines around the dinner table. Mom wanted to prowl the exhibit halls and pet the Brown Swiss (cows, not people). Ten-year-old Jesse was dreaming of carnival rides. Jake, 4, could taste the cotton candy.

How could a dad be so cruel?

Fortunately, my boss bailed me out with this assignment: Find out what it costs the typical American family to have fun at the fair.

We eagerly obliged, arriving at the fairgrounds in our typical Japanese sedan shortly after noon Saturday. We smiled as we bellied up to the front gate.

Cha-ching. Admission for the family: $16.

Jesse grabbed me by the arm and started dragging me to the midway, where carnies awaited our arrival like hungry crocodiles in a wading pool. This might have been because my son was preventing my wallet from returning to its designated pocket.

“Rides!” he shouted, tightening his grip.

I asked the lady in the ticket booth how many ride coupons she recommended for a typical American family. She seemed very wise in the ways of county fairs. She looked us up and down before answering, “Four sheets.”

Me: “How much is that?” (Old habits die hard.)

She: “Forty-eight bucks.”

Me: “I’ll take two.”

Cha-ching. Forty ride coupons, good for about a dozen rides: $24.

I handed them over to the kids.

“How long do you think it’ll last?” I asked the wise lady in the booth. She swatted a fly, then paused to mull it over.

“About 10 minutes.”

“No, really.”

“I’m not joking,” she said.

After swirling and dipping and spinning above the midway at nauseating speed, the family decided it was time to return to terra firma. Ten minutes had passed and the supply of ride coupons had been consumed. Jesse suggested trying a few games of skill. Jake seconded the idea with an “Oh, yeah.”

Dad chose the basketball toss, a personal favorite. On closer inspection, the basket appeared to hang about 27 feet in the air.

“Come on,” the carnie implored, “it’s only 11-1/2 feet.”

Cha-ching. Two throws - one airball, one clang: $4.

“Tough luck, man,” my friend the carnie said.

Mom, Jesse and I tried the softball toss next.

Cha-ching. Nine throws and those milk bottles just refused to fall: $6.

This is when Kathy suddenly took command.

“Corn dog,” she muttered, and marched off in the direction of a booth named, curiously enough, “Hot Dog on a Stick.”

“It’s a mood-setting food,” she explained when we caught up to her at the counter. “You can’t enjoy a fair without it.”

Cha-ching. Two corn dogs, one for Mom and one for Jake, plus a medium 7-Up: $6.

Dad and Jesse, whose other name is Grows Like a Weed, insisted on more manly food. We caught the aroma of grilled meat and tracked it to the Longhorn Barbecue.

Cha-ching. Two “fair specials” (half a chicken, beans and fries): $12.

That brought our spending total to $68. In 87 minutes. Under normal circumstances this is where I, the responsible and cheap father, would have put an end to the spending portion of the day’s program.

This is also where the real begging from the children would have started.

Instinctively, Kathy led us out of danger. We toured the animal barns, where Jake petted the big dogs (llamas) and learned how cows go to the bathroom (we cleaned his shoes afterward).

The trouble began in one of those sweaty buildings filled with people selling expensive stuff you don’t really need.

I resisted the guy selling collapsible ladders for $400, but while I was steeling myself to his charms, my wife was buying Orange Glo Citrus Cleaner behind my back.

Cha-ching. One quart of Valencia orange oil: $20.

It was 3 p.m., and starting to get hot.

Jesse: “Can I have something to drink?”

Jake: “Did you forget about cotton candy?”

Cha-ching. Two large root beers and two plastic bags stuffed with purple cotton candy: $9.

We returned to the midway for a final visit. Under ordinary circumstances, this would have been a big financial blunder. But the company was paying. “What the heck,” I said.

We returned to the all-knowing lady in the ticket booth.

Cha-ching. One sheet of ride coupons, good for about five rides: $12.

“What a dad,” she said, unable to hide her awe.

After more spinning and tilting, and a few more prizeless games of skill, we all clutched our stomachs and agreed to call it a day.

We grabbed ice cream cones on the way out and you can guess how much it cost. Every story needs a little mystery.

The grand total for three hours and 40 minutes of typical American fair fun: $122.75 and a zillion calories. I felt bad about not winning a stuffed whale or inflatable Crayon for the kids.

“We don’t need any souvenirs, dad,” Jesse said as we waddled to the car. “We have them in our tummy.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo Grapic: Fair follies

Thoughts and opinions on this story? Click here to comment >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email