Good deals if you know where to look
Stephanie Bulinski, 9, gets an unexpected greeting from Mini the sea lion while she and her mother, Darcey, are photographed at the Great New York State Fair Monday evening in Geddes. Although it costs $7 to be photographed with a sea lion, Mini and her peers put on three free shows every day at the fair. Hundreds of fairgoers crowded around the pools leaving standing-room-only to see the show Monday night. The Bulinskis are from Frankfort. Trevor Kapralos / Staff Photographer

GEDDES - Everyone likes a bargain.

At the Great New York State Fair, there are certainly deals to be found. But for Joe LaGuardia, who runs the fair's marketing department, the fair itself is the greatest deal of them all.

Where else, LaGuardia asks, can you get so much for just $4, the price of an advance-sale ticket? From the free attractions, to the reasonably-priced food, to the occasional giveaways, he said the fair puts the "fair" back in fair pricing.

"It really can be very inexpensive to come to the fair," said Will Hoyt of Marcellus, as his wife, Mary, looked on. "We never really end up spending that much money."

For the Hoyts, and many others at the fairgrounds Monday and today, the fair was an even better deal because senior citizens were admitted free.

"I don't think there's any question. We're founded on this as a family event," LaGuardia said. "And because people have so many options for when they get hungry or thirsty, businesses have to be competitive with their prices or they don't make it."

Among the free shows is the Sea Lion Splash, sponsored by Little Caesars pizza chain, which offers three free shows each day at noon, 3 p.m. and 6 p.m., near the Youth Activity Center. A crowd had already filled the grandstand by 5:30 p.m. for the final performance Monday.

Concerts at $2 a pop

LaGuardia said the free entertainment offered twice each day at the tree-dotted Cole Muffler Court is a huge draw.

Once known as Empire Court, then Miller Court beginning in 1981, and now Cole Muffler Court, since 1996, this year's lineup includes Isaac Hayes on Friday, Pat Boone today, and Cheap Trick drew a huge crowd to both its 4 and 8 p.m. shows last Sunday.

Richard Brownell, from Ark Port near Hornell, was selecting a bottle of wine from the many possibilities at the Wine Court. This is another of the best deals at the fair. For $10, the same retail price found in most stores, Brownell selected a Heron Hill Dry Riesling that sales vice-president Bob Wojner of Auburn then poured into a plastic drink bottle.

With wine in hand, Brownell met his wife for the 4 p.m. show by Al Martino, the singer who played Johnny Fontaine in the first of "The Godfather" movies.

"The price of food is so easy to take. And this," Brownell said, nodding toward his wine, "how can you beat this?"

And don't forget the best value in the Wine Court: all of the free samples. While those manning the wine booths take precautions to make sure someone doesn't try to abuse the system, they do give away a lot of free vino. Wojner estimates that his staff pours 20 percent freebies.

On the midway, ride tickets cost $.75, and most of the rides require three to six tickets. Because it's tough to know how much fun a ride will be, short of asking woozy patrons who have just disembarked, that can be kind of a gamble.

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And the midway noise can be overwhelming. Just 20 yards or so from the Musik Express ride, with a carnival barker that kept bellowing from the loudspeakers, "I can't hear you" and "Somebody scream out there," some fairgoers tried to catch a little peace-and-quiet at the prayer tent set up by Baldwinsville's Assembly of God Church.

Food-and-beverage finds

Prices for food and drink are fairly even from one end of the fairgrounds to the other, LaGuardia said.

"We've been busy, except for Saturday," said Jim Williams, who runs the popular Indian Village Soup House at the Iroquois Village. The eatery serves breakfast, lunch and dinner, and its biggest seller is the $3.75 breakfast special — which includes two eggs, home fries, bacon or sausage and toast.

The best food deal at the fair may be the one of three booths that carry no obvious restaurant name, but are each plastered with hand-painted signs that resemble ads in supermarket windows. For $1.50, you can get can a 1/4-pound hamburger and 10-oz. soda, or a hot dog and soda.

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"That's, basically, all we sell," said counter-worker Liz Centore of Syracuse.

Also look for the many vending machines that are scattered around. Both 20-oz. sodas and bottled water sell for $1.25, and Snickers or 3 Musketeer ice-cream bars cost just $1.50.

A staple at any fair is barbecued chicken. While there may be a cheaper bird out there, it's hard to beat Baker's Chicken Coop next to the Agway Horse Barns, which is celebrating its 52nd anniversary at the fair this summer. For $4.95, you can get a half-chicken, more than a buck less than the $6 charged at the Dinosaur Bar-B-Que/Gianelli's Sausage restaurant near Cole Muffler Court.

Baked potatoes and cold milk

At the Haddock Paddock, just a few yards from Baker's, they sell a fried haddock dinner for $7.50. But Doug's Fish Fry, in the Price Chopper Horticulture Building, offers fish, cole slaw, and onion rings or fries for $7.25. And while there, you can pick up a coupon good for a free cup of soup at one of their four locations around Central New York, including Skaneateles.

"We've been selling 400 to 500 fish dinners a day," said Mark Braun, the owner of Doug's Fish Fry in Cortland.

Two of the attractions that always seem to have a steady line of customers is the baked potato stand in the Horticulture Building, and the ice-cold glasses of milk in the Dairy Products Building. A spud, grown at Jackson Farms in Savannah, costs $1 and comes with butter, sour cream and grated Heluva cheddar cheese. Back in 1972, a 6-oz. glass of plain or chocolate milk cost a nickel. Today, it's still a bargain at a quarter.

But ask Sonny Smith what's the fair's the best deal and he doesn't hesitate. He may change his facts around some, but he doesn't hesitate. Smith's game is trying to guess people's weight or ages.

"If you want to get a really good deal, come here," said Smith, who has worked at this game for the past 40 years. "Where else can you pay $3, and if you win, get a $10 prize. Where else? And let me tell you, I lose a lot more than I win."

To reach Staff Writer Erik Sorensen, call 253-5311, Ext. 240.

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