Skip to content
Quick Start for:

Texas State Fair ropes in visitors, revenues

When the first State Fair of Texas opened in 1886, tourists didn't have access to to find out the latest on the fair's attractions. Back then, the fair didn't even have Big Tex, the 52-foot-tall talking cowboy that is the fair's instantly recognizable symbol. In 1886, the fairgrounds only covered 80 acres, and 14,000 people showed up on opening day.

By 2002, about 3 million people visited the State Fair each year, now located at the 277-acre Fair Park in Dallas, and its annual attendance makes it by far the largest fair in North America, according to Amusement Business magazine's annual survey.

"We expect to attract another 3 million in 2003, which will have an economic impact of roughly $350 million in the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex," said Nancy Wiley, the fair's vice president of marketing and public relations.

Each year, the fair has a theme, and the 2003 theme is "Taste and See." The advance publicity promises that among other things the fair will feature celebrity chefs, wine tasting, product sampling, gardening tips and exhibits from the Texas food and wine industries.

Running the show
Such an enormous job requires a year-round, permanent staff of about 40 employees who work for a 55-member nonprofit corporate board, State Fair of Texas Inc., and a 15-member executive committee.

The fair always opens with a parade in downtown Dallas. From the parade on September 24, 2003, until the fair's end 24 days later on October 19, the staff ensures that thousands of details are covered.

Some employees help ticket sales go smoothly; some are responsible for amusement rides, games and entertainment; some work with more than 8,000 animal entries for the fair's livestock show; and some coordinate about 7,000 entries competing for blue ribbons in creative arts such as jams and jellies, quilt-making and photography.

Step right up
The fair offers food and drink to visitors at about 200 different locations on the fairgrounds.

"We have everything from full-service restaurants to push carts," said Wiley.

On the midway, patrons can spend the fair's 50 cent coupons on about 75 rides and amusement attractions, such as Tina, the world's tiniest horse, or the tallest Ferris wheel in North America, the 212-foot Texas Star. Or they can pay cash to play about 75 different games ranging from modern video games to such old-time, carnival favorites as knocking down milk bottles to win a prize.

"We have all kinds of exhibits too, from mom and pop exhibits with 10-by-10 foot booths to the 80,000-square-foot building that holds the auto exhibits of General Motors, Ford and Chrysler, with their latest models and experimental concept cars," said Wiley.

College football games also attract visitors to the fair. On October 4, 2003, Prairie View A&M will play Grambling University in the Cotton Bowl, and on October 11, the University of Texas will play the University of Oklahoma in the 73-year-old stadium.

The largest single-day attendance record for the fair was set in 1966 with 345,469 visitors, according to the Handbook of Texas Online, an online encyclopedia of Texas sponsored by the Texas State Historical Association and the University of Texas. The staff no longer tracks attendance because the number of people who enter the gates with a ticket doesn't tell how many people attend the fair each day. Many people, such as school children and senior citizens, get in free on certain days.

"We were using a formula to estimate attendance, but the formula always produced about 3 million, so we felt it more meaningful to use daily coupon revenue as a measure," said Wiley. Coupons are the fair's currency. In 2002, fair patrons spent $21 million in coupons for food, beverages, rides and attractions.

Revenue and expenses
The fair earns revenue from a variety of sources. The event's organizers receive no funding from the federal, state or local government, and they decide how much to spend each year to put on the fair by estimating how much revenue they expect to take in that year added to whatever is set aside for operating funds from the previous year. For the 2003 fair, organizers anticipate spending $40.5 million to put on the event and expect $44.5 million in revenue.

Any money left over after paying expenses each year is reinvested in improvements and preservation projects at Fair Park, which the city of Dallas owns. The fair's representatives and city officials jointly decide which improvements--such as building renovations, roof repair or air conditioning--have the highest priority.

About 54 percent of the fair's revenue comes from admission, parking and miscellaneous sources. General admission in 2003 will be $12, and the price for seniors (age 60 and over) and children under 48 inches tall will be $8.

About 32.5 percent of the fair's annual income stems from the fair's share in the gross revenue from amusement ride operators and food vendors. The percentage of the fair's take varies according to the individual contracts signed.

"Corporate sponsors play a big role," said Wiley. In 2002, about 60 sponsors spent close to $3 million on entertainment and events, and even more on in-kind contributions, such as advertising or producing a variety of attractions. For example, Texas Utilities offers a nightly laser show, and Chevrolet sponsors well-known musicians and singers on the fair's main entertainment stage. Kroger also operates an exhibit called Birds of the World, while Budweiser brings its famous Clydesdales for its Octoberfest exhibit.

The fair also obtains annual revenue from exhibit rentals. Corporate sponsorships and exhibit rentals will make up about 13.5 percent of the anticipated $44.5 million in 2003 revenue.

A fair future
The city of Dallas and State Fair of Texas Inc., which operates the State Fair and owns land and parking adjacent to the park, teamed up in June 2002 to pay for a $1.5 million study, the Fair Park Comprehensive Development Plan.

"This study is really a physical master plan that looks at the physical boundaries of the park as well as pedestrian and vehicular traffic," said Willis Winters, assistant director for Planning, Design and Construction for the Dallas Park and Recreation Department. "It also is looking at parking and the condition of the historic buildings, most of which date back to the 1936 Texas Centennial Exposition.

"We have seven museums at Fair Park, and they're struggling, so the city is looking at a marketing analysis and the development of a marketing and business plan to ensure that the park is self-sustaining year-round," he said.

Fair Park attracts 7.5 million visitors annually and is already one of the top tourist attractions in the state, Winters said. City officials, he said, hope that with the study results in hand they can create and maintain a signature park for Dallas, while revitalizing the park and the surrounding economically deprived community.

"The park and the community are in a symbiotic relationship, and for the park to succeed, the neighborhood must succeed and vice versa," Winters said. "And to that end, we also have a parallel study to build an entertainment district in the surrounding neighborhood."

The Dallas City Council expects to formally receive the results of the study on October 1, Winters said, but the study is not the only thing destined to influence the State Fair's future. The Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) plans to build two new stations for the light rail system near Fair Park.

"DART anticipates completing both stations by 2010, depending on the size of sales tax revenue on which DART construction largely depends," said Morgan Lyons, DART's manager of media relations.

Winters said that when the DART stations are completed, they will increase year-round attendance at Fair Park by 20 to 40 percent. He bases his estimate on the increase in attendance at the Dallas Zoo when new DART stations were added at that city attraction.

For now, however, the big question is not how most people will get to the fair, but how they can manage to squeeze in all the fair exhibits, carnival rides and food before day's end.

Pam Wagner