No cheese curd eating contest, but lots of summer fun

Giant cream puffs will be sold, but there will be no cheese curd eating contest at the Wisconsin State Fair this year.

After last year’s cancellations due to Covid restrictions, states are bringing back their annual fairs with increased attention to safety, cleaning and disinfecting — plus some changes.

“We are seeing people gravitate towards normalcy — the events, people and places they missed out on last year,” said Misty Belles, managing director of the travel agency network Virtuoso. “Local celebrations that bring together communities, from street fairs to state fairs, are returning.”

At this year’s Iowa State Fair, which runs Aug. 12-22, there will be no farm-to-fair dinner, the family-style sit-down meal for 500 during which Iowa farmers answer questions. Nor will there be the usual on-site grape stomping. However, fairgoers will find a new park for tractor pulls.

At the Indiana State Fair, which runs July 30-Aug. 22, Covid vaccinations will be available, and fully vaccinated individuals will not be required to wear masks. Eating contests — including an ice cream eating championship — are shelved this year. And to spread out the crowds, fair organizers have added a weekend at the front of the fair schedule but are closing the fair Mondays and Tuesdays.

New England’s Eastern States Exposition, known as “The Big E,” will run Sept. 17-Oct. 3 with no restrictions, CEO Eugene Cassidy said. “Minor changes will be unrecognizable, while others may be more obvious, like a combined daily parade instead of two separate parades,” he said.

The Oregon State Fair, which runs Aug. 27-Sept. 6, is also back at full capacity, with no mask or physical distancing requirements or proof of vaccination, fair officials say. But there will be no California State Fair — Cal Expo — this summer because the state fairgrounds are still being used as a mass vaccination center.

As cities and states open back up again, they are going all out to get visitors’ attention — and their travel dollars — beyond state fairs.

Theme Parks, festivals, attractions

Theme parks and attractions from Disney to Dollywood have been welcoming visitors for months, with safety protocols already in place — but with summer shifting into high gear, more attractions are reopening.

The Warner Bros. Studio Tour Hollywood reopened on June 26 after being closed for over a year. Opening hours are adjusted and there are some new post-pandemic additions to the tour, including an expanded Central Perk Café where guests can dine in re-created sets inspired by the show.

At Dollywood, in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, “Our guests are enjoying the Summer Celebration, which opened on June 25 and includes the new multisensory fireworks and drone show,” Pete Owens, a Dollywood Company spokesman, said.

In New York City, the interior of the Statue of Liberty up to the pedestal/interior (but not the crown) reopened to the public ahead of the July 4 weekend. “We’re seeing a homecoming to normalcy with an abundance of new and returning events and attractions across all five boroughs,” said Chris Heywood of NYC & Company marketing company, which includes NYC Restaurant Week and the U.S. Open.

After being dismantled and made over, SkyWheel Myrtle Beach in South Carolina is back spinning, with a new wheel structure, refurbished gondolas, and new state-of-the-art lighting systems for light shows.

Even the Enchanted Forest theme park, near Salem, Oregon, is welcoming visitors again. The family-owned attraction had received death threats when it announced masks and proof of vaccination would be required at the entrance, so it pushed back its opening date until Covid restrictions were relaxed.

Cruises are also back — though limited this summer due to capacity restrictions.

“It’s taken 15 months to be able to say, but cruising is officially back — and for North Americans, there are a number of options to consider,” Colleen McDaniel, editor in chief of Cruise Critic, said.

Ships are scheduled to depart Florida and Texas for Caribbean cruises, and Seattle for Alaskan cruises, and travelers can also fly to St. Martin or the Bahamas and leave on select ships from those ports, she said.

The summer concert season has also returned to many cities, with Lollapalooza at Chicago’s Grant Park on July 29 with headliners including Miley Cyrus, Foo Fighters and Post Malone. The Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival is scheduled for Sept. 2-5 in Manchester, Tennessee.

In the Berkshires of western Massachusetts, Tanglewood is back with a full summer season of performances by the Boston Symphony Orchestra and concerts by Brandi Carlile, soul-gospel icon Mavis Staples and folk singer Judy Collins.

Maryland’s DelFest, founded by bluegrass pioneer Del McCoury, is also back on the books for Sept. 23-26 — and McCoury, now 82, said he is anxious for the festival’s return.

“It’s the longest I’ve ever gone without playing, and since my two sons are in the band, it was especially hard,” he said. “I think it’s going to be very emotional. Tears have come to my eyes many times when I read the notes about how excited longtime fans are to be coming back.”

(This is a slightly different version of a story we wrote for NBC News)

Travel Tidbits: Testing, Festivals, and More

COVID-19 testing required for international travel – and maybe domestic travel too.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now requires that all travelers flying to the United States from abroad show proof of a negative COVID-19 test before boarding their flight.

The new rule went into effect on January 26. And in addition to the pre-flight test, CDC is also recommending that anyone arriving in the U.S. be tested 3-5 days after travel and stay home to self-quarantine for 7 days after travel. Or self-quarantine for 10 days if they don’t get a test.

Airlines, hotels, and airports are rushing to help travelers comply with this new travel requirement.

United Airlines, for example, rolled out is “Travel-Ready Center.” This digital site lets passengers review COVID-19 entry requirements, find local testing sites, and upload required testing and vaccination records for both international and domestic travel.

The new ruling is quite rigorous for international travel. And on Tuesday it was reported that the Biden administration is “actively looking” at expanding mandatory COVID-19 testing to travelers on U.S. domestic flights.

We’ll see if that extra layer of testing become reality. But in the meantime, if you do plan to travel soon it will be good to brush up on the current rulings.

Another airline bans emotional support animals

Southwest Airlines announced that as of March 1, 2021 emotional support animals will be banned from flights.

Starting that day, Southwest will only accept dogs that are trained service animals. The airline will still allow pets to fly in the cabin, but only if they are vaccinated domestic cats or dogs in an appropriate pet carrier. And if they have a ticket. Fares are $95 each way per pet carrier.

Southwest joins all other major airlines in making this ruling. Alaska Airlines, Delta Air Lines, American Airlines, Frontier, JetBlue, Hawaiian Airlines, and United Airlines have already put their “no emotional support animals” policy in force.

Festivals rebooked for real

Dare we hope?

While many annual events around the country and the world are being postponed or canceled for yet another year, some are going forward.

In New Orleans, the Jazz & Heritage Festival that was canceled last spring is now scheduled for October 8-17. And the French Quarter Festival is now planned to take place September 30-October 3.

A few festivals & cool museum exhibits in May

Out and about this month? Here are few fun festivals, events and new museum exhibits to check out.

Party like its 1969

The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame has just opened a new exhibit celebrating the 50th anniversary of Woodstock.

The exhibit runs through Fall 2019 and includes rare prints, performance outfits, video footage, original signage and artifacts including the guitar strap Jimi Hendrix used while playing “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the festival, a hand-drawn map of the festival grounds and the outfit John Sebastian (of the Lovin’ Spoonful, wore when he made an unscheduled acoustic performance after a rain break.

Hang with Hoosiers

Indiana is going all out to welcome visitors with discounts and free admissions at over 300 businesses and attractions during Visit Indiana Week.

Admission is free to all Indiana state parks, forest recreation areas and off road vehicle riding areas on May 5, State Park Sunday.

Discounts for zip lines, bike and boat rentals and ideas for free outdoor activities are offered on Get Moving Monday (May 6), while restaurants around the state have lined up deals for Tasty Tuesday (May 7). Museums, monuments and state historic sites will have discounts on Wayback Wednesday (May 8), while sampling and discounts are on the menu at Indiana’s wineries, distilleries and craft breweries on Thirsty Thursday (May 9). The week rounds out with Family Fun Friday (May 10) and Sweet Saturday (May 11). 

Gather in Greenville

Greenville, South Carolina’s annual 3 day art & cultural festival known as Artisphere takes place this year from May 10-12.

This year the festival includes demonstrations, dance performances, more than 30 concerts, a DIY art lab, a local “Artists of the Upstate” exhibition and Artist’s Row: 135 pop-up shop galleries on Main Street in Greenville.  

A new public art sculpture, by Blessing Hancock, titled “Spindle” will be unveiled during the festival to honor Artisphere’s 15 anniversary. The sculpture is inspired by the rich textile history of the area once known as “The Textile Capitol of the World”.

Party like its 1869 on National Train Day  

On May 10, 1869 workers, dignitaries and railroad officials gathered in a remote spot on the north end of Utah’s Great Salt Lake for a ceremony to join the tracks of the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroads and mark the birth of the Transcontinental Railroad.

During the event, which is reenacted each year at the Golden Spike National Historic Site at Promontory Summit in Utah, four ceremonial spikes  including a gold spike with “The Last Spike” engraved on the top – were tapped into a wooden tie with pre-drilled holes.

This year, to mark the 150th anniversary of “Last Spike” ceremony and of the Transcontinental Railroad, there will be three days of festivities (May 10 through 12) with locomotives facing each other on the tracks and volunteers reenacting the 1869 ceremony word-for-word and spike tap for spike tap, several times each day.

For those who can’t make the trek out to the park, Spike 150 lists exhibits and events to mark the anniversary taking place throughout Utah, and throughout the year, including a display that includes three of the original four spikes used on May 10, 1869.