Plenty of free and low-cost ways to have fun in Champaign-Urbana this summer
Get out of the house and have a blast with your kids in Champaign, Urbana and many other Central Illinois communities, all while staying on a budget
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.
Thanks to Champaign Public Library for presenting this post. The library’s Imagine It! summer reading challenge has begun. There are challenges for kids, teens and adults. Prizes include books, backpacks and a whole lot more.
50 Ways to Have Summer Fun on a Budget in Champaign-Urbana (in no particular order)
1. Fairs and Festivals: Check out our round-up of all Fairs and Festivals we know of 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. We hope there are freebie times at the Champaign County Fair in July, and we’ll have all the details when they announce!
2. 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. For example, Champaign Public Library has books, color changing cups, bags and LOTS of coupons for FREE food in Champaign-Urbana on the docket for this year’s prizes.
3. Free movies (during the day): Savoy 16 is bringing back FREE movies during the day this summer and now showing TWO movies on TWO screens.
4. Free outdoor movies (at night): Movies are extra fun when they’re a) outside and b) happening after bedtime. Outdoor summer movie season is here and we have a list of all of the upcoming flicks and where to find them. Most are FREE.
5. Free outdoor concerts: Champaign-Urbana loves its free music, especially in the summer. Our advice: pack a picnic, a blanket, and some games or toys for the kids.
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 to enter the petting zoo. FREE.
7. Hessel Park Waterplay Splash Pad: 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. Hours are 10 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 10 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: When you want to take up creek stomping and don’t know where to begin, this is a great place to visit. “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. All kinds of other things to do at Homer Lake, too.
10. Go Creek Stomping: Venture beyond Homer and find other ways to get wet outside… in a creek! The idea behind creek stomping is to get wet and enjoy nature – at the same time. And maybe even see some wildlife too. Bring some rain boots or water shoes. FREE; you just have to get there.
12, Eastern Illinois Baseball League to open: Eastern Illinois Baseball is one of the oldest sports traditions in East Central Illinois and will play again this season. A fully amateur league, it’s free to attend. Games are played in Buckley (north of Paxton). Find more info here.
13. 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 will have articles for Fourth of July broadly as well as a pocket guide to fireworks coming soon!
14. Go on the Champaign-Urbana ice cream trail. Summer is the season for frozen treats. See how many you can tick off of our list. If you like food trails, we also have them for donuts, cheese curds, burgers, barbecue, pizza, and more! Find them ALL here.
15. 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 $6 resident/$9 non-resident, as compared to $8 resident/$12 non-resident any other time.
16. Visit Japan House, the Arboretum and IDEA Garden: One of the most beautiful places in our midst and it’s right under our noses. The house doesn’t need to be open to take in the beautiful Japanese gardens, as you can stroll any time. And just next “door” is the Arboretum and the IDEA Garden, a living “laboratory” of beauty. Great place for family photos, too.
17. 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 $14 one way. Parking overnight at a downtown hotel can run $45 or more a night, FYI.
18. Farmers Market fun: Many area farmers’ markets offer more than simply picking up produce. Kids love to help pick items out, and perhaps grab a treat to go (no food consumed on site this year), too.
19. 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 or grab a bite at the Greenhouse Cafe.
20. Play miniature golf. The two 18-hole golf courses at Old Orchard Links in Savoy are now open. Here’s a tip: the more games you buy, the cheaper it is.
21. Danville Dans discount nights: Everything is $2 on Tuesdays during Danville Dans home games including tickets, beer, soda, and hot dogs.
23. 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. Reserving your visit ahead of time is kindly requested.
24. Spurlock Museum: Much like Krannert, you can cool off and learning something here, too. Donations requested, but optional here, too. No advance reservations needed for groups of four or less. Get the scoop on when you can visit here.
25. 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. Many of these opportunities are expanded due to additional funding during the pandemic.
26. Check out Auto Racing in Farmer City: Dirt track auto racing is back in action at Farmer City Raceway. Events are Friday night, and kids 12 and under are free for general admission; adults are $12. There are also pit passes available for a fee.
28. Parks, Parks, Parks: Exploring new parks is constant entertainment for kids. They love something new, and you could probably visit a new one almost every day of the summer! Check our online reviews.
29. 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.
30.Go to the drive-in: One of the hottest summer activities this year is to go to the Harvest Moon Drive-in in Gibson City. Our on-a-budget tip: bring your own food. You have to pay $5 for the right, but it will save you money in the end. And just because you pay for the food pass doesn’t mean you’re banned from the snack counter!
31. Discount day at Sholem Aquatic Center: After 5 p.m. daily and all day Friday, get into the Champaign water park for a discount rate – price is $9 resident/$9 non-resident, as compared to $8 resident/$12 non-resident any other time.
32. 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 mid-late July.
33. 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), among other summer deals.
34. Go on a float trip. It’s a heck of a lot cheaper than renting a boat! The folks at Kickapoo Adventures offer float trips starting at $12 for adults and $8 for kids.
35. 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.) Champaign Public Library has begun to bring their play space back to life after being tucked away for the last year. Plenty of options for school-age kids in addition to the younger tots. No matter, they are all on our calendar.
36. 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.
37. Summer outdoor concerts: You can find live outdoor music all over Champaign-Urbana during the summer time. We’ll have a complete list soon.
38. 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. We can tell you where to check.
39. Learn to fish. Kaufman Lake is among the venues that offer FREE fishing lessons. Equipment is provided but you must register in advance. If you’d like to venture out on your own, we have a list of places to try, too.
40. Bike along the Kickapoo Rail Trail, and others. When you’re biking as a family, you probably have two goals for your journey: somewhere out of the way of major traffic, and somewhere that’s not too strenuous for little peddlers. We take you to some of our favorite riding spots in the area.
41. 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. Three productions for students entering grades 3-6, 6-12 and 7-12 are on the docket. Check our calendar for performance times when it gets closer.
42. 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 have a list of favorite spots.
43. 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!
45. Anita Purves: One of our favorite places in the summer to watch birds or take a walk in the woods. Reserve a time for a FREE private tour. Bonus: Friendship Grove Nature Playscape or a walk through Busey Woods.
46. 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.
47. 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.
48. Take a hike. Different than a walk, hikes will take you into the woods and off the beaten path, so to speak (though near Champaign-Urbana, we have a lot of beautifully paved paths you can hike). Nonetheless, find out how and where to start hiking near town with a handy legend showing you the varying levels of difficulty you’ll encounter as you tackle the trails with your kids.
49. 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.
50. Play Footgolf. Is it soccer? Is it golf? It’s really a combination. It’s fun, family-friendly, and it will even get you a whole bunch of steps – if that’s your jam. Head out to Lake of the Woods golf course in Mahomet to try it out. See our Foot Golf review here. Tip: Save a $1 by bringing your own soccer ball.
51. Paddle, kayak, boat and more. Many of these opportunities are more budget-friendly than you’d imagine. Like paddleboats at Lake of the Woods or Crystal Lake Park.
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.
Some ideas on day trips you can take with your family, many of which are on a budget:
- How to Rent a Boat on Lake Shelbyville with your Family
- Road Trip: Visit St. Louis as a Family
- Visiting Imagination Grove Near Bloomington-Normal
- Best Midwest Summer Road Trips for Champaign-Urbana Families
- Road Trip: Visiting Wisconsin Dells
- Midwest Indoor Waterparks Within a Few Hours of Champaign-Urbana
- Day Trip from Champaign-Urbana: Living Large in Casey
- 20+ Unique Summer Day Trips from Champaign-Urbana
- Head North for Family Fun: What To Do On Your Chicago Trip
- An Insider’s Guide to a Springfield Getaway
- A Whole New (Old) World: Exploring the Arthur Amish Area with Kids
- Effingham, a Trip to the Crossroads
- Winter Break Day Trip: Family Fun in Peoria
- Travel Back in Time at Lincoln Log Cabin