By Emily Harrington
The air feels crisp, traffic is backed up and people are drinking beer at 9 a.m. That’s right — Fighting Illini tailgating time. This year’s first game (sans monsoon) had a different draw for us than previous seasons — Grange Grove.
In an attempt to liven and energize the once subdued and often sparsely populated Lot 36, the University of Illinois made a bold move by transferring the big donors to a different area to create this bustling tailgate attraction right in front of Memorial Stadium. You can see Grange Grove located right off of First Street at Kirby Avenue, just west of the stadium.
On game day we borrowed a family parking pass, but I understand parking can be a challenge. If you don’t have a pass, carpool with somebody or be prepared to pay to park in Lots 44, 46, 47, 49 and the lots in Research Park. For more logistical information read the very helpful guide the university created. You can also learn about the benefits of joining the Fighting Illini Kids Club and how to get discounted tickets by taking a look at the guide created by chambanamoms.
We arrived at the Grove a little more than an hour before kickoff. The earlier you come, the more scheduled programming you will see. Regardless of game time, live music and the family fun zone begins three hours before kickoff. The Marching Band drumline performs 2.5 hours before kickoff and the Fighting Illini Walk (where the team rolls up on the team bus and walks past fans to the stadium) happens about 2 hours and 15 minutes before kickoff. So, although we were tardy for the party, there was still plenty of fun to be had with just over an hour until game time.
You can’t miss the massive gates welcoming you to the grove. On our way in we passed various area food trucks where you could buy food and even a free food tent courtesy of County Market. A grilled hot dog and side with a drink — for free. Sure beats packing up a clumsy crock pot or hauling a grill across town. Get your food at the grove conveniently and without a mess or hassle! If you do want your own tailgating spot, you have to be VERY early; too early for us. Grange Grove opens at 7 a.m. on game days with a first come, first served policy for tailgaters to set up camp. (You can also schedule larger scale tailgating rentals ahead of time.)
When we entered the gates (for freeeeee) there were a lot of people and a lot of attractions. The two little guys we had with us wanted to jump in one of the inflatable setups. When we stepped off the cement path and onto the grass I realized I had made an egregious error. Footwear. I was wearing flip-flops and my son sported sparkling white Nikes. NOT APPROPRIATE for this area, especially if it rained the day before. I envied the kids in adorable galoshes and looked in admiration at their clever parents. I didn’t even think about the mud potential. When in doubt wear rain boots! It was a soggy, muddy mess, and his Nikes will never be the same.
Aside from the footwear debacle (because the kids couldn’t have cared less), the setup was a great way to emmerse the kids in the Illini culture and burn off some steam before they had to sit through a lengthy game. We bounced (after only a short wait) in the Illini-themed bounce house that was a great size for the 2- and 4-year-old we had with us. We also slid down the huge inflatable climbing wall that our 4-year-old nephew loved. Another inflatable floating around allowed you to test your football throw as it acted as a target.
I really wanted my husband to ride the mechanical bull at the center of all the hoopla, but he thought it would be “embarrassing.” Pish posh. That attraction was perfect for the tween age group. Face painting was also available but had a 30-minute wait according to one mom I talked to, and that would just not work for the squirmy kiddos we had with us. One of the coolest attractions we came across was a tent where the kids could try on football pads and an Illini jersey while their parents took a pic. Little kids teetering clumsily in bulky football pads: priceless.
While circling the big area we found booths with free Illini swag like buttons, stickers, posters and temporary tattoos. If you are in need of more substantial Illini gear, you can stop by the tent selling merchandise, too. While exploring the various tents, a lively, live band can be consistently heard in the distance. You will find plenty of portable potties and space to throw a football around, too.
Organized attractions begin to wrap up 30 minutes prior to kickoff in an attempt to herd people into the game. However, the area will be open until 10 p.m. for day games or until an hour after the conclusion of the game for night games.
This new addition to Memorial Stadium infused the overall game day experience with energy and fun. It’s a great departure from previous tailgates of iPhone tunes and lukewarm chili. We are looking forward to visiting before each home game … in the right shoes.
Emily Harrington is a Chambana townie that left her 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. job to be a 24/7 mom to a dreamy son. Still interested in writing, Emily uses some of naptime to practice her passion and keep her mind right. Emily is a happy wife with a happy life because she fell for a fellow townie. Oh, and let’s not forget her other son, a degenerate canine named Heppenheimer.