A fair to remember: The Central Florida Fair

Last month, one of Orlando’s oldest traditions, the Central Florida Fair, arrived in town. An annual rite of spring, the fair has taught, educated, and entertained us for more than 100 years. Nowadays, the fair raises its tents on Colonial Drive, but for many years it was just downtown within walking distance of College Park.

At the ribbon-cutting to begin the fair on opening dayin 1961, the author’s father stands in the middle of the back row. In the front row are, fourth from the right, Pete Parrish, executive director for years, and sixth from the right, Curt Stanton.
Photo courtesy of The Orange Country Regional History Center

As the Mid-Winter Fair in the late 1880s, its beginnings were along the shores of Lake Eola.

In 1909, Orlando promoters built exhibit halls complete with stockyards on West Livingston Street between Hughey Avenue and Parramore Avenue. The inaugural fair was held in 1910, and Orlando came out to celebrate its agricultural industries with a floral automobile parade from Orange Avenue to the new fairgrounds, and for the first time, an airplane took off from the fairgrounds that year.

The Central Florida Fair in 1969 as shot from the top of the giant Ferris whee
Photo by Dick Camnitz

In 1927, the City bought the fairgrounds, and a new organization, The Central Florida Exhibition, began carrying on the annual fair. Except for 1943–45, due to World War II, the fair has come to Orlando yearly.

By 1947, a permanent livestock barn and exhibition halls were built. The fair’s mission was to bring the latest and greatest inventions to town and to show off prowess in the fields of agriculture, horticulture, and, of course, the ever-popular cake baking contests.

Prior to Disney’s arrival, the Central Florida Fair was so important to Orlando that schools closed on opening day. Children walked there or were dropped off until either dusk fell or a pocket full of dimes had run out.

My father, Grover Bryan, served on the board of directors of the fair during my childhood, including the years while it was downtown and then later held on Colonial Drive. For our family, the fair became a most-anticipated annual event. Its sights and sounds and smells are so evocative, my memories are stirred simply recalling the fair’s trifecta of midway rides, sideshows, and fair food.

The cotton candy vendors with clouds of colorful confections hanging from their booths, the scent of deep-fried funnel cakes dusted with powdered sugar, corn dogs smothered in mustard, corn on the cob complete with butter dripping to my elbows — and all finished off with a bright red candy apple — was just the best! The greasy sausages and onions were always tasty but didn’t mix well with the wild rides on the midway.

The annual Floral Parade down Orange Avenue opened the fair.
Photo courtesy of The University of Miami libraries via Historic Orlando III Facebook group

Riding rides with names like Wild Mouse, Tilt-A-Whirl, the Himalayan, Round-Up, Twister, and the Zipper was so exciting! The Glass House with its myriad of mirrors, the Fun House, and the Haunted House all beckoned us through their doors.

From the top of the double Ferris wheel, simply seeing Orlando lit up at night made us feel part of a world far bigger than our sleepy town. Adding to the thrill was feeling your stomach “drop” as your chair swung over the top. It was also a great place to steal a kiss with your high school sweetheart!

And, oh! The sideshows! I remember having to come “of age”— maybe 9 — before being allowed to go inside the “freak shows” to see with my own eyes what I could only imagine: Gazing at the Rubber Man the 600-pound Fat Lady, the Human Blockhead, the Bearded Woman, the Tattooed Lady, and the two-headed goat were all part of the thrill.

This flower-covered automobile paraded with others down Orange Avenue in the 1910 Opening Celebration.

Amazingly, there was even a burlesque show in the 1950s (before my time) complete with Siska and her macaw. Siska, also known as Anita Marie, was a Texas girl who began dancing in the late 1940s. By the early ’50s, frustrated with her burlesque career, she purchased a large macaw and spent nine months patiently training the bird to remove ribbons from her dance costumes. The innovative strip act was an instant success.

What many don’t know today is that the Central Florida Fair is the oldest and largest not-for-profit fair in the area. Its mission is to preserve and enhance the agricultural, educational, and historical legacy of Orange, Osceola, Seminole, Lake, and Volusia counties, which are known collectively as Central Florida. Working with the University of Florida to promote education in agriculture, the Central Florida Fair, through an endowment, has given thousands of dollars in scholarships and awarded millions of dollars of premium monies through its livestock and creative arts programs. It has continued to provide a venue for Future Farmers of America and the 4-H to thrive with significance and leadership.

Not to mention, the Central Florida Fair still thrills over 200,000 visitors every spring!

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