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Grounds for Fun : Orange County Fair's Loud Games, Wild Rides Are Big Draw for Teens


"It only comes once a year."

Talk about catchy phrases. You hear it so much around the Orange County Fair that it seems like an official slogan churned out of the media office.

But the purveyors of this saying are none other than the most savvy of fair-goers, those who are truly still kids at heart: teen-agers.

Though fair officials could only estimate that a "substantial" number of the 700,000 patrons who will attend over the three-week run will be teens, everyone knows what a scene the fair is--especially on the weekend evenings.

Forget the movies, the beach, the coffeehouse or the front of the local 7-Eleven.

The fair is the place to hang right now.

Fountain Valley High senior Kendra Mayo spent last Friday, Saturday and Sunday wandering through the lanes lined with obnoxiously loud games and colorful, blinding lights from the rides. The warped, muffled hip-hop vibes shooting out of the speakers didn't bug her much. Nor did the difficulty of maneuvering through the thick crowd of her peers. She says she'll spend many more evenings doing the same until it all ends July 24.

"I can't wait until this time of the year when I can see people I haven't seen in a long time," says the 16-year-old, who'd "probably be at home or some party" if the fair weren't in session.

Instead, Kendra and nine of her gal pals from throughout the county brought the party to the Costa Mesa fairgrounds Sunday night to see rap diva Queen Latifah on stage. Just about every one of the 8,500 seats available at the Pacific Amphitheatre was filled by teens that evening, as well as much of the lawn area behind the seats.

It's probably one of the few of the fair's free concerts that will garner such an energetic, young crowd; Vikki Carr and Three Dog Night just don't cut it if you were born when Gerald Ford was in office. No matter, there's more here than a couple of good nights of hip acts.

"Like the rides," says Trabuco Hills High junior Jasmine Farmand, a member of Kendra's entourage.

"Yeah, you've been on so many," interrupts Lili Zandpour, 16, a junior at Mission Viejo High School. "Try the guys," she clarifies.

"It's true!" screams Jasmine, 16. "It's the guys. And the rides. Oh, and being with my friends. I just love being here and not being at home. You know, it's only once a year."


So is their friend's birthday. Naissan Wesley ("that's spelled like Wesley Snipes") turned 17 last Wednesday but waited until Sunday to celebrate. Having the fair and Latifah show all wrapped up into one package made it the best possible way to party, she says.

The University High senior led her court through a zigzag of open spaces, not really going anywhere but apparently in search of something.

They're handed flyers to upcoming clubs and raves, doled out by backpack-wearing teen promoters. A few ladies meet up briefly with friends from their schools, before rejoining the pack. They stop and ponder a ride and then move on. They stop at the ticket booth, stand in line for a bit, but no one actually buys any tickets.

At this time, I ask Kendra what she hates about the fair. The oily glow everyone's skin gets? The bad combination of junk cuisine and queasy rides?

"I don't like having to pay $6 for admission, then having to pay for the (ride) tickets too. I mean, come on, what are they thinking?"

But Kendra concedes she will eat the costs just for the thrill of the rides. (I'm again reminded about the fair's temporary life and that next year is eons away.) Coupons run 60 cents each or 20 for $10, and it takes two to five coupons a ride. Anything worth risking your stomach on, of course, takes four or five.

At one point, a few of them are stopped in their tracks by a girl who just came off the Kamikaze ride screaming for a cigarette to tame her nerves. The number of cigarettes lit here (though none by the 10 ladies I've joined) is enough to make the surgeon general squirm. As for the girl who stopped them, they pay little attention to her and keep cruising.

With so many thousands of teens packing one place once the sun has set, it wouldn't be off to assume that problems could flare. Tepid summer evenings bring out the wild side in us all, and it's no secret that the probability of impulsive acts of aggression decreases with age.

The official word from the media office is that any potential confrontations are snuffed out before they happen. (And anyone--minor or over 21--who appears inebriated is swiftly dealt with. Last year there were 34 alcohol-related arrests, mostly of minors.)

That's not much different from what several officers of the Orange County Sheriff Department say. Their uniformed presence is obvious throughout the fairgrounds, but it just about saturates those areas frequented most by youth: where the rides and games are. The exhibition halls and kiddie areas are quiet as the evening darkens. Apparently no respectable high schooler would be caught dead hanging around livestock or checking out homemade quilts, at least not without a younger brother or mom.

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