State Fair opens: Here's what to expect

Walking the sheep
Rebecca Kazemba, 19, of Round Lake, Minn., and her sister walked their sheep on opening day of the 2015 Minnesota State Fair. The 12-day event continues until Labor Day.
Courtney Perry for MPR News

The gates of the Minnesota State Fair opened Thursday at 6 a.m. for its 12-day run, from now till Labor Day.

The fair is coming off a record year in 2014, when 1.8 million people walked through the gates. It set an all-time daily attendance record its final Saturday last year.

A few things to know, before you head out:

The only kind of poultry you'll see will be on a sandwich or a stick

A turkey farm near a Jennie-O plant
A turkey farm near a Jennie-O plant in Melrose, Minn.
Kirsti Marohn | The St. Cloud Times via AP

Live poultry is banned at the State Fair this year because of avian flu, but 160 4-H kids are still competing to win blue ribbons for their birds and their showmanship.

State 4-H program director Brad Rugg said the students have come up with creative poultry proxies.

There will be "a lot of scrapbooks to look at, a lot of posters to view, a lot of three-dimensional displays like science projects that are going to highlight what the kids have learned this year in place of looking at the bird with the heartbeat," Rugg said.

The 4-H showmanship judging Thursday evening will evaluate how competitors answer questions about their bird. They can use a photograph or a plush toy to represent the animal. Participation is down by about one third from last year.

If you go: Poultry exhibit judging will run from 1:30-5 p.m. Thursday, with showmanship from 6:30-9:30 p.m.

Sara's tipsy pies
Sara's tipsy pies, a new vendor
Courtesy Minnesota State Fair

There are plenty of new foods to try, from roasted pig tails, bacon ice cream and burger dogs

The fair has added a half-dozen new food vendors &mash; and 40 new foods this year.

SPAM burgers
SPAM Burgers is offering five new flavors: jalapeno, hot and spicy, bacon, hickory smoke and black pepper.
Courtesy Minnesota State Fair

There's a roasted pig tail coated with scallion ginger sauce, a "burger dog" that's a ground blend of hot dog, hamburger, bacon, cheese and jalapeno peppers.

The big restaurants at the West End Market are back with new offerings: a mac-and-cheese cupcake at LuLu's Public House and meatloaf hash at the Blue Barn.

You can also try SPAM burgers in 5 new flavors and a carmel chocolate-dipped bacon ice cream bar. But, of course: NO GRAPE SALAD, despite what The New York Times said last Thanksgiving.

Beyond food, celebrate Ye Old Mill's centennial and '80s mainstays

Ye Old Mill is celebrating its centennial this year. It opened in 1915, and is still owned by the same family. It's a fair staple and will run you $3.50 per ride.

Ye Old Mill
This undated photo shows fairgoers walking past the Ye Old Mill attraction at the Minnesota State Fair.
Minnesota State Fair

Last year, the only roller coaster in the Midway was the Crazy Mouse ride. This year will feature the Super Nova, which is the successor to the Wind Storm, on the west end of the rides.

There will also be a new Hmong Minnesota Day on Sept. 7 — and a figure skating day on Monday, featuring Olympic gold medalist Kristi Yamaguchi.

Def Leppard and Styx are playing a sold-out show at the Grandstand Thursday night, although there are still tickets available for Alan Jackson, Pattie LaBelle and Lynyd Skynyrd next week — as well as A Prairie Home Companion. The Current is hosting the Avett Brothers and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band at the grandstand next Saturday.

Don't forget the free sunscreen

And, of course, there will be free sunscreen this year. The fair wants people to take the sun seriously, and they're putting out pumper jugs of Vanicream SPF 30 at information booths. You'll find them on a stake right outside.

New this year: Buy tickets online

Ticket reader
The Minnesota State Fair is rolling out e-tickets, starting Friday, Aug 28. 2015. Fairgoers will be able to use a ticket on a smartphone to get into the gate.
Tim Nelson | MPR News

Starting tomorrow, you'll be able to buy gate tickets online for the fair.

They won't sell them on the first day of the fair, because of the traditional "Thrifty Thursday" discount. But in addition to the tickets at the gate, you'll be able to buy and print tickets at home — and even use your smartphone at the gate, to avoid those lines at the ticket booths.

But that won't start until Day Two of the fair.

Expect demonstrations on Saturday

Black Lives Matter is planning a march up Snelling Avenue, from about four blocks north of Snelling to the fair gates at Midway Parkway — the big gate on the east side of the fairgrounds.

The group says it wants to call attention to the need for more diversity among fair vendors and businesses. The demonstration's organizer initially said the march wouldn't make its way into the fair itself, but later he said the group was considering it. There is a lot of uncertainty still about what Black Lives Matter will mean to the fair, and how much of a disruption there might be.

Black Lives Matter protesters
Black Lives Matter protesters at the intersection of University and Snelling Avenues in St. Paul during a protest in early August. The group says it is planning a protest at the State Fair on Saturday.
Riham Feshir | MPR News file

The weather will be GORGEOUS

On Day One: Mostly sunny today with highs in the 70s — a great day to open the fair.

The National Weather Service says it'll probably rain overnight, and maybe a little into Friday morning. Saturday and Sunday on the first weekend of the fair are supposed to be absolutely perfect: Sunny with a high at about 80, and a light easterly breeze.

MPR News reporter Lorna Benson contributed to this report.