Minutes after the gates to the San Diego County Fair swung open last weekend, Rick Smith ran toward the carnival rides, trying to keep up with his two sons, 7 and 10.

With one of the worst recessions in a generation, were the Smiths going to spend less? Would they perhaps skip a few carnival rides, stay clear of the stands selling deep-fried funnel cake and kettle corn or avoid basketball shooting games?

No way. The Smith boys had just finished school and skimping was not an option. "We are just going to go crazy," said their father, a studio engineer from Poway.

Despite glum economic news, fair managers across Southern California are betting that fairgoers will have the same attitude as the Smiths. Knowing families are tightening their belts, they are dangling bargains of all kinds to make sure. That includes some of the lowest prices in years.

"This year, we are going to push the value message," said James E. Henwood, chief executive of the Fairplex in Pomona, home of the L.A. County Fair.

The early signs are they may be on the mark. Other county fair and livestock show operators across the country have reported strong attendance numbers this spring and early this summer. Why? Experts suggest that in tough economic times, Americans turn to county fairs for nearby, inexpensive, convenient and family-friendly entertainment.

"When we go through difficult times, we stay close to what we know and what we love," said Marla Calico, a spokeswoman for the International Assn. of Fairs and Expositions, which represents about 1,300 fairs worldwide.

Take, for example, the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, which broke all attendance records in March with 1.89 million visitors. The Sacramento County Fair, which ended May 25, had a 3% increase in attendance over last year and a jump of 5% in food sales.

Closer to home, the Riverside County Fair & National Date Festival ended on Feb. 22 with nearly 280,000 visitors, only 8% below its all-time attendance record in 2007. "We were pleasantly surprised," said Riverside County fair marketing manager Veronica Helgeland.

Such a trend also bodes well for the managers of the Orange County Fair, July 10 to Aug. 9; the Ventura County Fair, Aug. 5-16; and the L.A. County Fair, Sept. 5 to Oct. 4, all of whom hope to capitalize on this stay-close-to-home attitude. Some fairs are closed some Mondays and Tuesdays.

At the San Diego County Fair in Del Mar, which runs through July 5, guests who stood in line talked not about the dismal economy but about stuffing their faces with junk food and jumping on every ride on the midway. "We just came for the food and rides," Karen Hinchcliffe, a high school student from San Diego, said as she waited with her friend Stephanie May for the fair to open.

The girls already had a list of the foods they planned to try: Rattlesnake chili, funnel cakes and chocolate covered bacon.

"I might cut back on other things but I'll spend just as much on food," Hinchcliffe added.

The king of carnival fried food, Charlie Boghosian, owner of the Chicken Charlie's food stand, said he raked in $2.2 million in gross revenue last year from the sales of deep-fried chicken sandwiches, S'mores, frog legs and Twinkies, among other treats, at fairs and carnivals across Southern California.

This year, he hopes to draw even more with the addition of his Zucchini Wienie, a hot dog, wrapped in a zucchini, dipped in batter and deep fried. On the first weekend, he sold more than 1,000 fried S'mores and 7,000 Zucchini Wienies.

"When the economy is a little tough and people don't have money to go to Japan or Disneyland," he said, "the fair is the cheapest and best entertainment."

The L.A. County Fair, one of the largest fairs in the country, drew about 1.3 million visitors last year. Fair operators plan to open the fair a weekend earlier and offer huge discounts in hopes of attracting 1.5 million visitors this year.

Among the promotions at the Los Angeles County Fair this year is a season pass for $24.95, about half of last year's $49.95 price tag.

The San Diego County Fair offered a $22 pass, good for all 22 days of the fair. (That deal was good only for those who ordered the pass before June 11.)