MANATEE -- Carnival lights twinkled in the night sky over Palmetto Wednesday night as the 97th annual Manatee County Fair kicked off.
A cool breeze whipped through the fairgrounds where people bundled up in coats, scarves, gloves and hats to enjoy rides, games, the swine show and foods of the fried variety. Tickets were half price for the opening night of the 10-day event.
"We've got a decent crowd in the midway and the center stands for the hog show," said Dan West, fair manager, halfway through the night. "It rained a little this afternoon and that stayed around longer than expect then a bit of a breeze started, but it is an average crowd for opening night."
The Miller family from Bradenton almost stayed home due to the cooler weather moving in after record-breaking high temperatures earlier in the week.
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"We almost didn't come because of the weather, but I'm glad we did," Karin Miller said. "It's not too crowded and it won't be that way later. We're here for the night."
Miller said it was the fourth year that her family has come to the fair.
"And it's a lot of fun," chimed her daughter, Rain, 10. Rain's favorite ride is the Zipper, which she describes as an "oval Ferris wheel but the seats are never level."
Her younger brother Hunter enjoys the fun houses and Gravitron.
Other families came out for the food.
"We're eating -- anything fried," said Bandi Jones, who held 18-month-old Eli while her husband, Benjamin, ordered a funnel cake. "We haven't been here in a few years. There is a lot more kid-friendly stuff. We'll definitely be coming back. How could we not? Look at him."
Jones nodded to her son Titus, 4, who was happily jumping around while swinging his inflatable sword won in a duck pick-up game. Titus said his favorite part of the night was the robot walking around the fair.
Shakoiya Craddock's family had their hands full.
The 9-year-old won two fish, an inflatable hammer and had a caricature drawn of herself.
Playing games is her favorite part of the fair, Craddock said.
Over at the Mosaic Arena, kids showed off hogs they've raised and cared for.
Jada Thompson of Myakka City was working to curb the appetites of swine entered by her children who were taking care of final show preparations.
Thompson's daughter, Jalyn, 11, has tried for four years to participate in the show and made it this year with "Donut."
"There are certain requirements. They must weigh at least 220 pounds and have a half-inch in back fat," Thompson explained. "Lots of feed goes into them. And the kids have to work with the pig because it's important to have nice muscle, too."
This was also the first year for Thompson's son, James, 8, who showed his swine "Mary."
"I did the shows as a kid so it's nice to see the next generation doing it," Thompson said. "I see people I graduated with who have kids doing it, too. It's a history thing."
Thompson and her husband each won herdsman awards in the 1990s.
The County Fair will continue through Jan. 27. West expects a larger showing today for the Don Williams concert. Crowds will also increase through the weekend because wristbands are a better value with the fairgrounds staying open longer, he said.
Manatee County sheriff's deputies will be on scene throughout the fair with offices located inside the grounds. Word of a possible shooting threat leaked out over social media Thursday, but Dave Bristow, sheriff's office spokesman said no evidence has been found to support the anonymous tip.
"It was the same type of threat we had last year," Bristow said, adding that nothing happened then. "We didn't want people to not attend the fair because of this. We have a very strong law enforcement presence at the fair and that will continue this year."
West said the partnership with the sheriff's office is part of the fair's success.
"We work hand in hand," he said. "We can't do it without them to make this a family-oriented event."
Gates open at noon today.
Elizabeth Johnson, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7041.