Laurel Fair promises family fun

Event runs for three weekends

  • Michael Sandloafer shows off one of the timberwolves from his Great American Frontier Show, which will be at the Laurel Fair.
Michael Sandloafer shows off one of the timberwolves from his… (Doug Kapustin, Baltimore…)
April 14, 2011|By Mary Gail Hare, The Baltimore Sun

The first Laurel Fair promises dozens of the usual breathtaking rides, like the 100-foot Ferris wheel and an even higher drop tower. Vendors will serve popular carnival fare, including fried dough balls, known as zeppoles. On the Midway, visitors can take chances with games that award kitschy prizes.

But this event, which made its Maryland debut Friday at Laurel Park racetrack and runs weekends through May 1, offers much more in atmosphere and old-time entertainment than the traditional carnival. For those seeking family entertainment and even some exotic animals, the Laurel Fair has acts featuring equestrian feats, performing wolves and creatures described in superlatives from "strongest and biggest" to "mightiest but tiniest."

Organizers chose the spacious grounds of the track on Route 198, just a few miles east of Interstate 95, for its easy accessibility from populated areas in Anne Arundel, Howard and Baltimore counties as well as Washington and Baltimore.

"It was the most logical spot because of its size and because people know where it is," said Ron Weber, a general manager with Fair Productions, a New York-based company that circulates four similar events in the eastern U.S. "The layout at the track is great and comes with plenty of parking."

Tourism officials anticipate crowds for the fair and sales for surrounding businesses. Thousands of visitors from across the region visit the Howard County Fair, and they usually make other stops along the way, said Rachelina Bonacci, Howard County tourism director.

"Anytime a destination hosts what could become a signature event, it is good for tourism," she said. "Travelers think regionally and don't see county lines. The wonderful thing about Maryland is all you have to do is go a ways down the street to see something entirely different."

If different is what visitors are looking for, Laurel Fair has Wild West drama and fireworks in its lineup. Performers will treat visitors to magic, Appalachian music, vaudeville-style acts, roping and riding feats, and frontier courtroom drama that allows the audience to decide a rapscallion's fate. Patrons can mine for gems, make soap and work leather. They also can milk a cow and then make cheese and butter.

"This really is the fair that cares and gives you an opportunity to learn," said Michael I. Sandlofer, an animal rescuer, trainer and conservationist who will share critters from his ranch in Florence, S.C., with fair patrons.

The residents of the petting zoo may initially intimidate even the bravest. Visitors can get up close to a 3,500-pound gentle ox named Tiny, a Texas longhorn steer and a striped donkey. Children can ride a camel or a pony and pat the faces of equines that range in stature from miniature horses to one of the largest breeds, a Belgian draft horse aptly dubbed Goliath. All the animals are rescues or recently bred at Sandlofer's ranch.

"This is all about raising awareness that we share this planet with all forms of life," Sandlofer said. "We want people to relate to these animals in a positive way."

Sandlofer, a retired Navy SEAL, spins his own yarns from the animal world and his own adventures.

"He has spent 35 years rescuing animals, including whales and manatees," Weber said. "He is definitely the fair's most colorful character, and he knows how to use all the colors."

Sandlofer's favorite may be his pack of five eastern timber wolves, which, he promises, "you can see up close." All the performers in the "Wolves of the World Show" have been rescued, one from Hurricane Katrina and several from illegal fur farms. Sandlofer delights in telling how Cody, the leader and oldest of the pack, made the news years ago when he rescued a young girl from a frozen pond.

Near the wolf ring, the True Story Saloon, with carrot juice and root beer on tap and photos of filmdom's most famous cowboys on the walls, trades on its name. The bartenders serve up tales out of America's West along with the beverages. Just outside its swinging doors, crews have built a campfire and surrounded it with log seats. Milk cans make up the seats at the Old West Theatre.

"We want everyone, especially the kids, to participate," said Joe Farrell, who, in cowboy attire, spins a lariat, twangs tunes and provides comic relief, frontier-style. "People need to turn off the TV, stop texting and just come down to the fair."

Farrell plays several homemade instruments, such as the washtub bass and a cigar-box ukulele. He will offer spoons to anyone willing to try a hand at strumming an old-time tune on his makeshift fiddle.

"These were instruments made by poor mountain people, who just made music with what they could find around the house," he said.

Weber, a veteran of the fair circuit, said, "People are truly amazed. They think "carnival" and see all this for the price of the $8 admission."

The fair heads to Fishkill, N.Y., after ending its run in Laurel on May 1, but the rides, animals and players will return to Maryland at the end of June for a fair at Pimlico Race Course.

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