In one form or another, the N.C. State Fair has been happening at various locations since the 1850s. It has been at its current home at the North Carolina State Fairgrounds adjacent to Carter-Finley Stadium in Raleigh for more than nine decades now. And like all venerable annual events, the fair aims for balance between old and new—things that stay basically the same from year to year versus shiny new attractions, with choice updates for some of the evergreens.

So fear not. When the fair opens its 11-day run on Oct. 17, you’ll be able to gorge on primal turkey-leg and funnel-cake goodness to your heart’s content while sampling the classic livestock, over-sized vegetables and arts and crafts displays that are part of the experience every year. You’ll definitely have another chance to ring the bell and win that over-sized stuffed animal from one of the carnival games of skill on the midway, too.

But below is a look at some of the other notable new, improved or otherwise tweaked aspects of the fair.

Fast facts

  • The 2019 N.C. State Fair is Oct. 17-27 at the North Carolina State Fairgrounds
  • View the schedule here
  • Plan for a full day of fun (two is even better) if you want to take in everything the fair offers
  • Ticket packages, with lots of different discounts, are available here—buy online to get the best prices
  • Special days with promotions are planned throughout the week—details here
  • Info on getting there, parking and park-and-ride is here
  • Download the official fair map here

Soar above Raleigh

The most literally high-profile addition to the slate of rides this year is the State Fair SkyGazer, the largest mobile traveling Ferris wheel in the country. At 155 feet, it towers over the roof of Dorton Arena by more than 62 feet. And it’s 50 feet taller than the fair’s previous highest Ferris wheel, the 105-foot-tall Giant Parthenon Wheel (which is also back this year).

It takes about six miles of electrical wiring to run the SkyGazer, including its 524,000 flashing LED lights. The ride can accommodate 216 people at a time in 36 six-person gondolas (they’re closed, which should come as a relief to those with a fear of heights). In clear weather, you should be able to see up to 15 miles away.


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If that seems like too much, there are other somewhat more modest opportunities for you to get your Ferris wheel on at the fair.

“We’ll have a Ferris wheel on every midway,” promises Sarah Ray, public information officer for the fair. “There’s one on the midway by the Expo building, two on the big midway, one near the Scott building, two up in Kiddieland and SkyGazer.”


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Tickets for the SkyGazer are $6 in advance and $7 at the fair. Need to know: Unlimited Ride Wristbands do not include admission to the SkyGazer or the permanently-installed State Fair Flyer chairlift (which costs $4-$8 depending on when you buy and if it’s round-trip or one way).

Other new rides this year include a new Alien Abduction, Sky Hawk, Sizzler and an open-air Ferris wheel called Dream Wheel. You can ride those with the Unlimited Ride Wristband, $25 in advance until Oct. 17 or $35 at the gate. See the full list of rides here.

Speaking of up in the air

Fireworks are back again this year, but with a new wrinkle. After more than a decade of the shoot-off zone being a pad in the woods of the Carter-Finley Stadium complex, Ground Zero is back on the fairgrounds. And even though the fireworks launch from closer range to viewers, they should actually be noticeably quieter than in years past.


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“They’ll shoot from a barge in the pond near Gate 8,” says Ray. “It’s close-proximity fireworks with nothing hot falling, and they also won’t be as loud. You probably won’t hear it from far away anymore because we’ve taken away the percussions and sonic booms you’d hear all across the county. It should be great from a sound perspective. You can watch them from pretty close, within about 200 feet.”

Look for the fireworks to kick off every night at 9:45pm sharp. The show should last from 10 to 13 minutes.

New. Fair. Foods!

No N.C. State Fair experience would be complete without the obligatory left-field culinary delights. Funnel cakes and other time-honored deep-fried foods are available again, of course, but with some new additions.

Some of this year’s most intriguing new foods include the aforementioned funnel cake topped with cheese and enchilada sauce; “The Sloppy Pig,” a sloppy joe covered in cheese sauce and bacon crumbles; doughnuts covered in chocolate frosting and Reese’s Pieces; and “Crack-n-Cheese Stuffed Turkey Leg.” Come hungry!

Alcohol sales are back for a third year in 2019 at the Our State Public House, where you can sample flights of beer, cider and wine. And for non-drinkers, this year they’ve added non-alcoholic craft sodas, too.

It might get loud

In a case of something being the same every year and yet also different, the Homegrown Music Fest returns for a fifth year in 2019. Once again, it’s all free and all North Carolina acts—but a vastly different cast from year to year.

In that regard, the big news of this year’s concert lineup involves jazz saxophonist Branford Marsalis, a Durham resident since 2002. The fair has been after Marsalis to play for years, and it will finally happen the evening of Oct. 21 on the Dorton Arena main stage.


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“I am so excited that things finally worked out to get him, I still can’t believe it,” says Amy Cox, senior vice president of Deep South Entertainment and project manager for the Homegrown Music Fest.

Other Dorton main-stage headliners this year include the Stevie Wonder tribute act Natural Wonder on opening night, Oct. 17; the venerable beach-music ensemble (and N.C. Music Hall of Famers) The Embers featuring Craig Woolard on Oct. 18; Charlie Daniels Band, featuring Wilmington native Daniels, on Oct. 22; proto-Americana band Pure Prairie League, featuring Pinehurst resident Craig Fuller, on Oct. 23; and the Raleigh rock band American Aquarium on Oct. 24 for a show you don't want to miss.


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The other five nights in Dorton Arena, Oct. 19-20 and Oct. 25-27, are given over to the annual Folk Festival. It features old-time dancers and musicians clogging, square-dancing and playing folk and bluegrass to try and earn the Bascom Lamar Lunsford Trophy, which goes to the individual or group “that best exemplifies North Carolina’s musical heritage.”

Outside Dorton, two other stages have daytime schedules featuring everything from the "punk funk" sound of Raleigh-based Boulevards (Oct. 27 on the Waterfall Stage) to Mount Holly singer-songwriter David Childers in an unlikely pairing with NASCAR race-car driver Kyle Petty, Oct. 22, on the Heritage Circle Stage. And roaming acts on the midway include the one-man-band Bandaloni and Street Drum Corps, plus various stilt and acrobatic acts.


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One other musical attraction to note is an outgrowth of the state arts council’s Come Hear North Carolina campaign, in which 2019 has been declared the state’s “Year of Music.” To that end, there is an exhibit on the state’s music history in the North Lobby of Dorton Arena—well worth checking out on your way in to see American Aquarium, Marsalis or one of the other Dorton shows.

Interesting fair facts

  • The first N.C. State Fair was in 1853. It was on hiatus from 1861 to 1868 due to the Civil War and its aftermath; 1926-27 when its operations were being transferred to the state agriculture department; and 1942 to 1945 due to World War II. The fair took up residence at its current location in 1928.
  • The fair’s all-time attendance record was set in 2010 with 1,091,887 visitors—one of five years when attendance cracked one million. Last year fell just short at 977,256, due to losing a day from Hurricane Michael, but there were two single-day attendance records set in 2019.

Header photo: Brian Magee Photography