How to get the most enjoyment out of your trip to the Illinois State Fair
Does your family love carnival rides, barnyard animals, fried food or high diving shows? Then the Illinois State Fair is for you! The 2019 Illinois State Fair runs from Thursday, Aug. 8, through Sunday, Aug. 18, at the fairgrounds in Springfield, about a 90-minute drive from Champaign-Urbana. If you want to extend your trip a bit, check out this guide to a family-friendly Springfield getaway. Visiting the State Fair is one of our top nine summer festivals in Central Illinois beyond C-U.
Editor’s Note: Many thanks to our dear friend and Springfield native Tara Burghart, a proud University of Illinois alumna and former Champaign resident, for this great in-depth article.
The admission charge at the gate is $10 for adults 13 and older and free for children 12 and under. On Sunday-Thursday, adult admission is just $5. You can park on the fairgrounds for $5. Also, 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.
Weekdays are a lot less crowded than weekends (and you’ll save money getting in, too). 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
THE DAIRY BUILDING: This is where the famous Butter Cow resides during the fair, inside a refrigerated glass 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.
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, dog demonstrations, a blacksmith and a rock-climbing wall.
LITTLE FARMERS: The Farmer’s Little Helpers area is a free, interactive spot for young children to “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.
FAIR FOOD: If you missed the Champaign County Fair (or just want more), don’t forget to get 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.
ANIMALS: 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.
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.
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/or 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.
AT THE RAIL: 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 BATHROOM: 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 and up. Grandstand acts this year include Pentatonix, Old Dominion, Reba McEntire, Snoop Dogg & Friends, among others.
For more information on Summer Fairs and Festivals in the Champaign-Urbana area, see our guide.
For 9 More Great Central Illinois Festivals, including the Illinois State Fair of course, check it out here.
Want ideas for great day trips from Champaign-Urbana? Check out our list of 20+ right here.