As the Orange County Fair returns Friday following a yearlong absence due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there will be a lot that is the same, along with some notable differences.

Fairgoers will still be able to enjoy a hot dog on a stick and other favorites, including the Alaskan racing pigs, but crowds won’t be as large and hours are different as part of COVID-19 protocols.

The traditional earlybird free admission on the first day of the fair was canceled this year.

“We don’t want large crowds at the gate or long lines at the ticket booth,” so fairgoers are also being asked to buy their tickets online instead of at a ticket booth, said Michele Richards, CEO of the OC Fair.

But prices have not gone up and fairgoers won’t have to pay a fee to buy tickets online, Richards said.

The fair’s hours will be 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays and 10 a.m. to midnight Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, so it will be open an hour earlier on weekends.

It’s a way to “just spread the crowd and create a really nice, easy spread-out experience for guests,” Richards said.

But “all of the favorites are returning,” like the racing pigs, but they will be “front and center, right in the middle of the fair this year. We’re all excited about that,” Richard said.

The pig cam on the fair’s website is always on year-round, but, “We do have a sow expecting during the fair, so there will be piglets for sure,” Richards said.

Another noticeable difference is the concert schedule at the Pacific Amphitheatre. Country singer Brantley Gilbert will kick off the fair concert season, which will continue through Sept. 2.

“My personal favorite coming is the Goo Goo Dolls,” Richards said.

The rockers are scheduled to hit the stage Aug. 25.

Other notable performers will be X, Los Lobos and the Blasters on Aug. 1; War and the Commodores on Aug. 5; Cheap Trick and Blue Oyster Cult on Aug. 11; Dwight Yoakam on Aug. 13; and the Flaming Lips on Aug. 26.

All of the carnival rides and livestock competitions will also return.

“There will be plenty of blue ribbons awarded for fair competition for cakes, pies, quilts, photography and art work and always great shopping,” Richards said. “And, of course, the carnival.”

But attendance will be capped at about 75%, Richards said.

“We have a lot more tables, shaded seating for eating and drinking, so people can sit and relax and eat their food as opposed to walking around,” Richards said.

Daily attendance will be capped at about 45,000. Normally, daily attendance can be as high as 60,000 with weekend attendance hitting 85,000.

“Every day will feel like a regular weekday, where it’s easy to get around,” Richards said.

“A lot of people have asked why are you limiting attendance if there are no capacity limits anymore, and we’re doing that for several reasons,” Richards said. “Number one, we believe it will create a really exceptional experience and the community deserves that after the year we’ve been through. Number two, it won’t overburden our resources. We know we can have a safe and enjoyable fair with that attendance. And we know it can be profitable as well.”

The fair will still be 23 days long, as usual, she said.

Richards was supposed to take over the fair as CEO last year, but the pandemic canceled that. So this will be her first year in charge.

“That’s called bad timing,” she said of the yearlong absence.

“How do you describe this feeling?” she asked. “It’s like a big old flap of joy between two slices of happiness.”

She compared the “joy to reconnect” with the community to quarantined relatives reuniting.

“It’s been a tough challenge,” Richards said of the past year as the fairgrounds hosted COVID-19 testing and then vaccinations while also serving as a food distribution point for needy families.

“But it was also my privilege to see the organization through the pandemic and try to bring back our events and now to be able to host the fair is just like the rainbow at the end,” Richards said.

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