I grew up in Springfield, and the Illinois State Fair was absolutely the highlight of our year as kids. But I’ve talked to Chicago-area natives who have made the trip down to Springfield in recent years for the fair, and they’ve loved it, too. So don’t just take my word for it!
Here’s my recommendations for making the most of your day (or weekend) at the Illinois State Fair!
The admission charge at the gate is $7 for adults 13 and older and $3 for children ages 5 through 12, as well as seniors 60 and older. Kids under 5 get in free. You can park on the fairgrounds for $7, or homeowners and businesses near the grounds turn their yards into private grassy parking lots. The nearer you are to a gate, the more you pay, of course. And at the end of the day, you’ll be happy to have paid a couple dollars extra when your car is close by!
Any day is a good day for the fair, but since you’ll be doing a lot of walking, it’s nice if you can attend on a cooler or overcast day. Also, weekdays are a lot less crowded than weekends. Make sure to take a good look at the schedule of events for the day of your visit and also to surf around the State Fair’s website, especially the entertainment page. You’ll get a paper brochure with a detailed schedule of events for the day you visit at the admissions gate. Here’s a link to a printable fairgrounds map that will help you get orientated before you even arrive.
THE CAN’T MISS ATTRACTIONS FOR FAMILIES:
THE DAIRY BUILDING: This is where the famous Butter Cow resides during the fair, inside a refrigerated class case. It takes about 500 pounds of unsalted butter to sculpt the cow, which has been a tradition since the 1920s. You can also buy ice cream cones in the Dairy Building, as well as delicious cream puffs.
LITTLE FARMERS: The Farmer’s Little Helpers area is a free, interactive spot for young children to can “raise” farm animals, tend to crops, take their harvest to market and earn money to turn in at the store. At the nearby “Kids Ag-tivity” tent, children can ride toy tractors, watch baby chicks, play games and dig through containers with corn and soybeans. It’s also a good spot for mom and dad to plop down on a hay bale and rest. Located near Gate 2 in the “Heartland” area, these are open from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily.
FIRE STATION: At the Illinois Fire Museum & Services Tent, your kids can climb on a fire engine, dress up in firefighter gear, check out antique fire service memorabilia and practice their skills with a working fire extinguisher. It’s located at Main and Central and open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
AGRARIAN LIFE: Make sure to wander around the barns, allowing your children to see the horses, cows, sheep and pigs up close. When I was young, I was certainly intrigued by the animals — but even more so by the farm kids who traveled to the fair to show their animals in the livestock shows. Some of them slept in the barns on cots just feet from their animals, and I think many still do. This year, state officials say the fair is returning to its agricultural roots, meaning you’ll find farm implements on the grounds, a new “Illinois Chopped Challenge,” and a more prominent place for the Department of Agriculture Tent, where you can buy ready-to-eat corn on the cob, watermelon, peaches, apple cider slushies and more.
MILK A COW: Your kids can milk a cow in the 25/Q Series Barn from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. every day and then get a coupon for a free bottle of milk. My daughter does this every year, and she just loves it.
THE CARNIVAL: The Midway is the carnival part of the fair, full of spinning rides and crane games and aimless teenagers. Honestly, I could take it or leave it — but of course kids love it. Adventure Village has rides for young kids and is located near the main gate, by the Giant Slide, a 40-foot-tall, 130-foot-long yellow fixture since 1968. The Giant Slide, by the way, is something you should consider riding down together as a family, if your kids are big enough. It has the potential to be a silly, sweet memory for all of you.
CONSERVATION WORLD: This area is quite a hike from the main gate, but it features a number of unique and free attractions, such as fishing clinics, a lumberback show, youth archery and BB gun ranges, dog demonstrations, a blacksmith and a rock-climbing wall.
FAIR FOOD: You just have to eat French fries from Culler’s French Fry stands. In the past, they’ve had two locations — on the east side of Grandstand Avenue and on the west side of Main Street, in front of Exposition Hall. Don’t hesitate to ask for help if you can’t find one. The fries are just delicious, served piping hot, in a paper cone — best served with a healthy sprinkle of salt and a dousing of vinegar. If you’re looking for a bit more “upscale” experience, some of the better food vendors have their own seating areas. Ethnic Village, near the main gate, also usually offers surprisingly tasty servings of Cuban, Filipino, Greek, Jamaican, Cajun and other cuisines. A recent addition is the “Golden Abe Fantastic Fair Food Competition,” rewarding vendors for creative and tasty food. Winners will have signs posted at their concession stands. The fair’s website now has a searchable guide to food vendors and a food map, too.
WHERE TO TAKE A BREAK:
When you do look at the schedule and see what catches your eye, try to plan some times to get out of the sun and sit down.
IN THE A/C: The Illinois Building/Senior Center can be a good spot to plan a rest, since it is air conditioned and has a theater where gymnastics teams, bands, choirs and dance studios perform. This building is also where the Illinois State Beekeepers Association sells small cups of delicious honey ice cream — made from honey from Illinois beehives — and exhibits an actual beehive. Outside on the lawn, you’ll find historic exhibits related to Abraham Lincoln.
HIGH DIVE SHOW: You’ll be sitting on benches in the sun for this one, but you will be sitting down at least. It’s a free diving show that features some silly comedy that appeals to the kids, as well. It’s located just inside Gate 2, with showtimes in 2015 at 2 p.m., 3:30 p.m., 6 p.m. and 8 p.m.
AT THE TRACK: Another fun, restful activity you can do is watch harness racing from the shade of the Grandstand. (Free to get in, although you can bet on the races.)
A SPOT FOR KIDS: Kids Korner is open from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily inside the Emmerson Building’s south wing. This building can get crowded and warm; the entertainment here includes face painting, a mural your kids can color on, a play area for tots, a puppet show, a magic show, a storyteller, marionettes, a clown and various musical acts. There are a number of diaper changing stations here, plus a couple of spots blocked off with screens, furnished with a glider, for breastfeeding moms. No restrooms, though. Outside is a fun bicycle skills course.
BEST BATHROOMS: If you’re looking for a restroom, the nicest ones historically at the fair are located in the Exhibition Building, which otherwise is mostly filled with lots of cooking and cleaning supplies for sale, the kind you see advertised on late-night infomercials.
STROLLER RENTAL: If you don’t bring your stroller, and later decide that’s a mistake, you can rent one for the day on Grandstand Avenue near the Goat Barn and also at the Illinois Building.
ENTERTAINMENT: There are a dozen free entertainment stages throughout the fair, although several of them are located in beer tents. The Grandstand will feature entertainment most nights, too, but the Grandstand concerts require tickets ranging in price from $20 to $45. Grandstand acts this year include Sammy Hagar, Fall Out Boy, Justin Moore, Rascal Flatts, Styx, The Fray, Hank Williams Jr. with .38 Special, Austin Mahone and Brantley Gilbert.