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Screams, cheers and laughter filled the sunny Santa Maria air on Wednesday, as thousands of Central Coast families and children flocked to the Santa Maria Fairpark for the 127th Santa Barbara County Fair.

Featuring a cornucopia of fried foods, thrilling rides and numerous attractions old and new, eager fairgoers waited up to an hour before gates opened to be the first in line for the"Cowboys and Carousels" edition of the fair.

"We come here every year," said Santa Maria resident Kristina Sanchez, "but this year we're here for my nephew's birthday."

Excited for his 10th birthday, man of the hour Ethan Gonzalez said he was looking forward to riding the numerous carnival rides spread out throughout the park. Sanchez said she took the day off work to spend time with her family at the fair.

"It's hard to spend time together as a family, especially with a big family," she said. "Coordinating everyone's schedule is hard, but we're glad to spend our time here together."

Diver Phillip Peters spent his first afternoon in Santa Maria doing something he's done for nearly two decades: swimming with a trio of nurse sharks.

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Diver Phillip Peters swims with a nurse shark during the Live Shark Experience at the Santa Barbara County Fair on Wednesday.

A new addition to the fair this year, Peters' Live Shark Experience provides parents and children an up-close glimpse and in-depth knowledge of sharks, some of nature's fiercest yet most misunderstood creatures. An experienced shark diver with more than 20 years of practice, Peters said he travels the country with his Florida-based attraction.

Nurse sharks, he explained at the start of his act, are a docile and timid breed known only to attack humans when threatened or provoked. To demonstrate a bit of their ravenous side, Peters partially submerged a hunk of fish into the tank. The audience gasped as the sharks thrashed and snapped at it. 

Even with the sharks primed for a meal, Peters was able to handle the sharks with ease — even inverting one over his knee and stroking its torso like a large aquatic dog.

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"Getting in the tank is always fun," said a drenched Peters after the show. "People always think I'm going to get bit when I do it, but the risk of getting bitten is roughly on par with someone who works with dogs. At this point, I expect it to happen."

While the attraction drew a sizable crowd, many of the children said they were there for one thing: carnival rides.

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Riders fly upside down on the Shocker during opening day at the Santa Barbara County Fair on Wednesday.

First-time fairgoer Eli Flores, 5, said he was most excited to get on rides with some of the other members of his summer camp. Erick Ortiz and Nathan Rocha made a beeline for the Zipper, a Ferris wheel variant featuring a dozen freely rotating cages.

"That was amazing," said Rocha after disembarking from the cage.

Jesse Cervantes, 15, said coming to the fair is a summer tradition for his family. A wide-eyed thrill seeker, Cervantes said he was most looking forward to getting on the rides that make people want to cry.

"I'm a bit of a watcher in the afternoon, but as soon as it gets dark I'm getting on all the rides," he said. "I'm going to try and get on every ride and enjoy it as much as I can."

Mathew Burciaga covers education in Santa Maria and the surrounding area for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow him on Twitter @math_burciaga

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Education Reporter

Santa Maria Times reporter Mathew Burciaga covers education for Lee Central Coast Newspapers.