Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Family-friendly, accessible and affordable, Red River Ex 'works hard at putting the "fair" back in the fair'

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From high-diving fools to caber-tossing Highlanders, from lumberjack saw-offs to kid-sized tractor pulls, from dog stunts to cat surgery to fish waiting to be caught, from familiar-favourite rides to Canada's largest travelling roller-coaster, and from mainstage concerts to kids' entertainers to all-access karaoke, it can safely be said that there's something for everybody at this year's Red River Exhibition.

"About three or four years ago, we indicated that we were going to work hard at putting the 'fair' back in the fair," says Red River Ex CEO Garth Rogerson.

"We've looked at adding the kinds of events and activities that make you think of a fair -- unique and different things that create that experience. And in doing that, we've gone out and engaged the community, created community partners and worked with them to develop new exhibits and attractions.

"In the past, we'd go out and buy a show from the (United) States or Toronto or wherever; yes, we're still buying those kinds of things, but we're also going to different community groups and saying, 'Let's create something cool.'"

Rogerson points to this year's expansion of The Pet Centre, a co-operative effort with The Winnipeg Humane Society that now includes the L*O*V*E Animal Hospital, which will give fairgoers an opportunity to observe live spay and neuter operations performed in a specially constructed sterile surgical suite.

"We've created this special operating room, sort of a building within a building, in order to create a very safe environment to perform these operations and show the public what it's all about."

The Red River Ex runs from June 15 to 24. Tickets are available at various price points at Mac's Convenience Stores, Sobey's and at www.redriverex.com.

Of course, Winnipeg's annual fairground-bound rite of early summer will still include the familiar favourites, including a wide selection of midway rides -- this year, with the addition of Nitro, Canada's largest travelling roller-coaster -- food options, interactive displays and free (with gate admission) concerts -- 2012's hefty mainstage lineup includes Carly Rae Jepsen (June 23), The Sheepdogs (June 19), The Backyardigans (June 24) and Tom Cochrane (June 18).

Musical entertainment won't be limited to the professional class, however -- this year's Ex also features an attraction called EXtreme Singalong, which is basically an all-day karaoke fest with multiple microphones to allow anyone with a hankering to belt out a tune the chance to join the fun without feeling the pressure of the solo spotlight.

"We've tried to create a situation where people can do karaoke without actually being the centre of attention," says Rogerson. "We've created this EXtreme Singalong, where we have a whole whack of microphones and people can just walk up and start singing away. You could be singing along with 15 complete strangers from the community -- you just walk up and start singing along with the song on the screen. There's no need to feel intimidated; anybody and do it, because everybody else is doing it. It's just a lot of fun."

Also among this year's Red River Ex attractions are the Flying Fools High Dive Show ("Those guys are crazy," says Rogerson), the EXtreme Highland Games Competition (June 17), the Timberworks Lumberjack Show and the Kids' Pedal Tractor Pull, which invites four- to 12-year-olds to take part in daily fun-focused competitions on a rather modest scale.

Full details of the 2012 event are available at www.redriverex.com

Rogerson says it's important for the Ex to continue to experiment with new ideas and add new attractions in order to maintain the inclusive atmosphere it has worked hard to create since moving from the old Winnipeg Arena site in 1997 to its current home near Assiniboia Downs.

"We've really developed a site that is very family-friendly -- strollers and wagons are very welcome -- and accessibility is a big thing for us," he says. "And safety is a big issue, too. On a Saturday, we can have as many as 45,000 people here, so we've partnered with the Winnipeg Police Service and we have a security company that works for us, as well, and we have a zero-tolerance policy -- if you want to come here and cause trouble, you're out the door. It's a family event, and we're not going to tolerate any misbehaviour."

Rogerson adds that the Ex's organizers have also worked hard to make the event affordable for anyone who wants to come. Unlike some other community organizations that have drawn criticism lately for declarations of what won't be allowed at their new venues, the Ex wants people to feel welcome and embraced.

"We open the gates again, free admission, on both Sunday mornings; we're having free admission on Thursday (June 21) from noon to 3 p.m., for National Aboriginal Day; and we've still got $5 admission before 5 p.m. from Monday to Friday. We're trying to open it up and give everyone a chance to come and enjoy the Ex.

"Is it expensive? You know what? Pack the kids up in a wagon, bring your water, your pop, your sandwiches or whatever; there are lots of picnic tables and grass, and you're perfectly welcome to bring all your own food and enjoy the day."

brad.oswald@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 14, 2012 D1

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