Plenty of free and low-cost ways to have fun in Champaign-Urbana this summer
Do you feel your bank account draining these days? We do! In many ways, summer can be the most expensive time of the year for Champaign-Urbana families. Parents are looking for stuff for their kids to do that is fun, active, and won’t break the bank. So what’s a parent to do? We’ve got ideas. Or course, many are on our calendar DAILY.
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45 Ways to Have Summer Fun on a Budget in Champaign-Urbana (in no particular order)
1. Fairs and Festivals: Check out our guide to Fairs and Festivals all throughout East Central Illinois. Many of them are free or very low-cost entry fees. To save money while you’re at the fairs, attend on nights when there’s a special such as an unlimited bracelet for carnival rides. Also, if you don’t want to spend money on fair food, most allow you to bring your own. There are freebie times at the Champaign County Fair in July, and we’ll have all the details!
2. Free and/or cheap movies: We’ve put together a whole list of places where you can go to see a movie on the cheap ($1 kids movies at Savoy 16, anyone?) and some that are even free.
3. Free outdoor concerts: Champaign-Urbana loves its free music, especially in the summer. Whether you go to neighborhood nights in Urbana, Sounds at Sunset in Champaign, Outside at the Research Park (July 19), or others, you won’t be disappointed. Our advice: pack a picnic, a blanket, and some games or toys for the kids.
4. Discount day at Crystal Lake Family Aquatic Center: After 5 p.m. (every day) and all day Tuesday, get into this Urbana water park for a discount rate — price is $4 resident/$6 nonresident, as compared to $6 resident/$9 nonresident any other time.
5. Free playdates: Don’t miss our Summer Playdates series, sponsored by Christie Clinic. We’re headed all over town for fun, trying new parks and playgrounds along the way. All of our summer playdate events are free; some have special activities and/or giveaways.
6. Prairie Farm: From turtles to rabbits to goats to sheep to pigs, there’s plenty of Old McDonald to sing here. Open every day from 1 p.m. to 7 p.m. with the petting zoo open from 3 to 5 p.m.; this is a program of the Champaign Park District, and is located in the Centennial Park complex. Remember your closed toe shoes. FREE.
7. Hessel Park Waterplay: Is it a Splash Pad or a Spray Park? No matter what you call it, this community favorite is an old standby. When you don’t feel like going to the pool, this is a great option — and TOTALLY FREE. Note the hours: 11 a.m.-7 p.m.
8. Douglass Park Splash Pad: This spray park in Douglass Park is similar to Hessel Park’s pad. The water is on from 11 a.m to 7 p.m. daily. FREE. Another great Champaign Park District amenity. Check out one mom’s review!
9. Homer Lake Natural Playscape: In some communities, “creek stomping” is all the rage. We don’t really have that many creeks to stomp, but the playscape fills that void. “The idea behind this sort of place is to let the wild ones run free and do what they do best – create, explore, get dirty, wet and muddy, throw rocks and sticks into the water, sort out the social hierarchy without adult interference and in general just be kids.” FREE. You just have to get there.
10. Museum of the Grand Prairie: This museum in Mahomet’s Lake of the Woods is FREE. There’s a great indoor play area for the kids and many of the exhibits are interactive. And you’ll walk out feeling smarter.
11. Indoor playgrounds: We have a guide to free indoor play spaces, and guess what – they are still open in the summer time. So if you need some time to cool off (for free), here are some options, including the Windsor Road Christian Church playground.
12. Fourth of July fun: Fourth of July is coming! The fun around the Champaign-Urbana metro starts at the end of June and goes through the holiday, and most of it is FREE or low-cost. We have guides for Fourth of July broadly as well as a pocket guide to fireworks coming soon!
13. Read books, get freebies: If your kids can read — or if you read to them — you can be eligible for freebies around the area, or prizes depending on the summer reading program.
14. Visit Japan House, the Arboretum and IDEA Garden: One of the most beautiful places in our midst and it’s right under our noses. Japan House will have tea ceremonies in June if you want to attend; however, the house doesn’t need to be open to take in the beautiful Japanese gardens. And just next “door” is the Arboretum and the IDEA Garden, a living “laboratory” of beauty. Great place for family photos, too.
15. Amtrak to Chicago: If you’re looking to save money when you go to Chicago, consider taking Amtrak. Depending on the train you take, it can be as little as $15 one way. Parking overnight at a downtown hotel can run $45 a night, FYI.
16. Family Night at Skateland: Taking the kids to roller skate can be pricey. Take advantage of deals on Tuesday ($2.50 night) or Wednesday ($3 night).
17. Farmers Market fun: Many area farmers’ markets offer more than just produce – kids activities, live music, and more can be found. Check out the downtown Champaign market on Tuesdays if you haven’t already. We go weekly to Urbana’s Market at the Square just for the atmosphere.
18. Visit Allerton Park: Named the most underrated tourist destination in the state of Illinois, we’re lucky enough to have this gem in our backyard. Entry is free; go hiking, check out the formal gardens, hunt for the sculptures, have a picnic.
19. Danville Dans discount nights: Everything is $2 on Tuesdays during Danville Dans home games including tickets, beer, soda, and hot dogs.
20. Kids Eat Free deals: Take the family for dinner and don’t worry about breaking any proverbial banks. We’ve updated our complete list. If you see a deal that we don’t have, let us know!
21. Krannert Art Museum: Another great place to cool off and learn something. Campus is quiet, but the museums are open! Although a donation is requested, it is optional. Open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
22. Spurlock Museum: Much like Krannert, you can cool off and learning something here, too. Free; See schedule for open hours (Tuesday through Sunday).
23. Free Summer Meals for kids: Summer can be a prime time for kids to go hungry. Area locations are offering free lunches and some breakfasts for children 0-18, no questions asked.
24. Bears training camp: This is a fun excursion just up the road in Bourbannais – and it’s totally FREE. It starts, well, sometime around the third week of July (the Bears haven’t announced this year’s start date). We’ll have more information as they post it.
25. Try a new pool, find deals: Daily admission is just $4 at Tuscola’s pool and there’s more in our pool guide.
26. Parks, Parks, Parks: Exploring new parks is CONSTANT entertainment for my kids. They love something new, and you could probably visit a new one almost every day of the summer! Check our online reviews.
27. Tours of Great Champaign-Urbana buildings: Go behind the scenes one of our most interesting cultural institutions: Krannert Center for the Performing Arts. Krannert Center tours are typically offered Tuesday through Friday during the summer sessions, usually at 3 p.m.; check its website. For the Top 5 Things to do at Krannert Center with Kids, see our post.
28. Monticello Railway Museum: In our experience, the only fees charged at MRM are to ride the trains between downtown Monticello and the museum campus on the outskirts of town. There’s plenty to see and do there; if your kids don’t care about taking a ride, take them over there to get up close and personal with trains and learn about the history of train travel in our area. And the rides aren’t terribly expensive if you choose to do so.
29. Discount day at Sholem Aquatic Center: After 4 p.m. daily and all day Friday, get into the Champaign water park for a discount rate – price is $4 resident/$6 nonresident, as compared to $6 resident/$9 nonresident any other time.
30. Curtis Orchard: Could it almost be time for Curtis Orchard to open? Just a few more weeks. Picking season takes a little longer, but the goats will be out and the cider donuts will be in the oven. Opening day is July 20.
31. Go Bowling at the Illini Union: One of the best kept secrets in our community, especially if you weren’t a student at U of I. The Rec Room is open all summer. Check out their specials (during the day Monday through Thursday) as well as Tuesday nights – $2 games, food, etc.
32. Special library events: In summer, our local libraries come to life! Visit one that’s new to you – some have indoor play spaces (and free A/C.) Plenty of options for school-age kids in addition to the younger tots. No matter, they are all on our calendar.
33. Parades: If you’ve read these pages for a long time, you’ll know that we are OBSESSED with parades. Why not? They’re free! We’ll have a complete list soon.
34. Friday Night Live: You could count Friday Night Live under outdoor concerts, but it’s more than that. Every week there’s a special kids activity in addition to the live music. So head out to downtown Champaign, every Friday night through August! Or check out Urbana’s First Fridays.
35. Family camping: If a grand vacation isn’t in your budget this year, make it happen by going camping nearby. Camp sites can go as little as $10 a night. Need equipment? Borrow some from friends, or find a rental.
36. Learn to fish. Crystal Lake Park is among the venues that offer FREE fishing lessons. Equipment is provided but you must register in advance.
37. Youth musical theatre events: Tis the season for summer youth theatre performances. Not free, but these tickets are usually pretty reasonable – and kids love to see other kids perform. Check our calendar for times and ticket info. (One example: Singin’ in the Rain Jr. at the Virginia Theatre.)
38. Have a picnic! Kids begging to eat out of the house? Pack up the basket and head outdoors, changing up your feeding routine – without having to pay for a restaurant. There are so many great places to eat outdoors in our community. We list eight favorites.
39. Pollinatarium: Open on Saturdays, the University of Illinois Pollinatarium is the first free-standing science center in the nation devoted to flowering plants and their pollinators. Plenty of stuff to see for kids. Free!
40. Visit the IDEA Store and get crafting: Even if you’re not addicted to Pinterest, there’s plenty of fun stuff to be had at the IDEA Store – for pennies on the dollar. Inspire your kids’ creativity — and your own!
41. See one of the newer museums in Champaign County. Folks have fallen in love with the Champaign County History Museum. Currently open Wednesday through Sunday, free with an optional donation.
43. Volunteer with your family: Do you have some time on your hands? Want to get involved in the community? Want to feel good? Start a family volunteering project. We’ve got plenty of ideas, or add your own.
44. Outdoor art: We’ve got tons of wonderful outdoor art in Champaign-Urbana from sculpture to statues. We’ve even shown you where some of our favorites are, so there’s no excuse not to start exploring!
45. Explore campus: Never step foot on central campus? Don’t let another summer pass you by without taking your kids over there – SO. MUCH. TO. SEE. We have guides to hanging out on the Quad and favorite places to eat. Go in the evenings after 5, and there’s even plenty of places to park for free.
How do you save money in the summer? We would love to hear your suggestions on our Facebook page! Make sure to sign up for our weekend planner email and get all news about what’s happening over the weekend in Champaign-Urbana.