Everything you’ve ever heard about Texas is true, especially when it comes to size. Fittingly, the State Fair of Texas is the biggest in the country, with over 2 million visitors stopping by the 277-acre Fair Park in Dallas during its four-week run. When you’re there on a busy day, it’ll feel like all 2 million of them are crammed in there at the exact same time, and with the fair ending its run on Oct. 23, you can probably expect this last weekend to feel exactly like that. Still, if you’ve never been, or want to get one last taste of this year’s festivities, you should absolutely try to make it down to Dallas before the fair rolls out of town. And if you do make it to the fair, here are six things you have to do once you’re there.
Say Hey to Big Tex
You can’t miss Big Tex. The benevolent overseer of all the action at the State Fair of Texas stands 55 feet tall just inside the park’s main gate, and is one of the major landmarks you’ll use to orient yourself during your day at the fair. Clad head to toe in Dickies, Big Tex waves to the crowd with his right hand, while periodically making announcements with his booming Texas drawl. Smaller versions of him abound throughout the park, from merch with his smiling face plastered all over it, to a large neon sign near the midway. There’s not much to do when it comes to Big Tex—you can’t go inside of him, you can’t climb him, you can’t high-five him—but you’ll probably love looking at him, at least for a spell. No trip to the state fair is complete without a selfie with the biggest Texan you’ll ever see.
Take a Spin on the Texas Star Ferris Wheel (and Other Rides Too)
At over 200 feet, the fair’s iconic Texas Star Ferris wheel was the tallest on the continent for almost 30 years. It’s still completely massive, of course, and massively impressive. It’s not the highest you can get at the fair—that’d be the Top o’ Texas Tower observation deck, which is 500 feet tall, and from which you can see Dallas and outlying areas, and also get a perfect view into the Cotton Bowl football stadium—but the Texas Star is a longer and more leisurely trip than the tower. The nearby midway is full of carnival rides and games, including a couple of roller coasters and a number of fun houses and haunted houses. Rides aren’t cheap—you’ll need coupons to ride, and with each coupon costing a dollar, you’ll typically pay somewhere between $8 and $12 per person for each ride. But what’s a trip to the fair without rocking out to a Music Express / Himalaya ride, or hopping on the giant swing? If you can only fit one ride into your budget, though, you should prioritize either the Texas Star or the Top o’ Texas Tower.
Eat a Bunch of Delicious (and Borderline Nihilistic) Fried Food
Not everything you can eat at the State Fair of Texas is fried—but anything that can be eaten is probably served up fried somewhere on the fairgrounds. This year’s big hit is the fried charcuterie board, which wraps mozzarella, green apples and salami in a wonton and then fries the whole thing up. (Don’t worry: it doesn’t actually have a physical board in there.) Elsewhere you can try a deep fried BLT, a deep fried lasagna roll, and eggrolls with all manner of stuffing, from lobster mac and cheese, to a “soul food eggroll” filled with barbecue chicken and collard greens. Not all experiments work—the funnel cake fried chicken sandwich stuck a small, chewy, flavorless chicken patty between two funnel cakes—but there’s such an overwhelming amount of options that you’re guaranteed to find something you’ll love. And can you really say you’ve been to the fair if you didn’t eat so much unhealthy food that you feel both physically and spiritually sick? One recommendation: the Cajun lobster bisque croquettes, which are fried balls of lobster meat and brie, covered with Cajun spices and served with a small side of lobster bisque soup for dipping.
Check Out the Art Deco Architecture along the Esplanade
Fair Park is home to one of the largest collections of Art Deco buildings in the world. Although over 50 buildings were originally constructed for the Texas Centennial Exposition in 1936, only about 30 or so still stand; what remains is still amazing, though. The most impressive of them can be found flanking either side of a 700-foot-long pool called the Esplanade. You should take a photo of the pool, of course, but the buildings and statues surrounding it are what you’ll most want to photograph. In the porticos of two giant exhibition halls stand six statues, each one dedicated to one of the six different governments that have ruled Texas (yes, the same idea as the Six Flags chain of theme parks), and each one is a striking example of the Art Deco movement that flourished throughout the ‘20s and ‘30s. Look for various Art Deco touches throughout the exhibition halls, from bas relief murals to smaller statues. And at the head of the Esplanade you’ll find two sleek, silver figures bursting forth with a visible sense of speed, like two classic automobile hood ornaments. Outsiders might not associate Texas with an art style that reads as shorthand for big city class and sophistication, but locals have grown up with a fantastic assortment of 1930s architecture.
Enjoy One of the Fair’s Many Shows
Any state fair worth its coupons will have a bevy of shows and live performances on its schedule, and obviously the biggest fair of ‘em all is no exception. This year’s highlights include the ¡Fiestas de Marionetas! marionette show, which takes guests on a cultural tour of a small Mexican village, complete with a lucha libre match and an appearance by Selena. The exciting bird show Soar educates you on a variety of winged friends while also raising awareness and money for preservation and conservation; if you’ve ever wanted to see an owl fly from the top of a Ferris wheel and swoop mere feet above your head on its way to the stage, this is your chance. You can also watch dog stunt shows, magic acts, a chainsaw-wielding wood carver, and even an old-timey strong man act. There are two nighttime highlights you can’t miss. The Starlight Parade features elaborate floats from New Orleans’ legendary Kern Studios, as well as a truck full of Shriners playing Stevie Ray Vaughan covers. Shortly after the parade wraps up each night, the Illumination Sensation show starts at the Esplanade. It’s a theme park-quality nighttime show with lights, water, music, and dancers paying tribute to the cultural history of Texas. Even if you’ve already taken photos of all those Art Deco statues, you’ll want to take some more during Illumination Sensation; the lights and projections beamed at the statues grant them a whole new sense of magic.
Be Ready to Spend a Lot
This rabbit has nothing to do with how expensive the fair can be, but you’ll make the same face it’s making when you check your bank balance the next day.
The last thing you’ve got to do when you go to the State Fair of Texas is be prepared to blow a lot of money in a hurry. It’s not that much to get in—ticket prices vary by time and day, but it was $20 a person the day we went—and the shows and exhibits don’t cost extra, but you’ll have to buy coupons if you want to go on any rides, play any games, or have anything to eat or drink. Coupons cost a dollar apiece, and by the end of a 10-hour trip my party of two had spent about as much as we would to go to a major theme park for the day. Most food seemed to be between 10 and 20 coupons; water or soda was five coupons, and alcohol was between 12 and 20 coupons, all of which is in line with major theme park food costs. Between a trip on the Texas Star, the Top o’ Texas Tower, the carousel, and the Texas Skyway gondolas, we spent over $80 on rides. Combined with food and drink, we spent well over $150 on coupons that day. The fair has enough to do that doesn’t require coupons that you could still have a good time without spending a ton, but it’s hard to go to a fair without eating a lot of really tasty food and then promptly trying to throw it all up while getting jostled and spun on midway rides. So if you’re looking for the full, classic state fair experience, make sure your bank account can take the hit. It’s definitely worth it.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s also on Twitter @grmartin.