How to get the most enjoyment out of your trip to the Illinois State Fair in 2023
Many Champaign-Urbana families make the annual trek to Springfield for the Illinois State Fair, conveniently happening right before the school year takes off
Does your family love carnival rides, barnyard animals, fried food or high-diving shows? Then the Illinois State Fair is for you! The 2023 Illinois State Fair runs from Thursday, Aug. 10, through Sunday, Aug. 20, at the fairgrounds in Springfield, about a 90-minute drive from Champaign-Urbana.
RELATED: 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 seven great 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 contributing to this great in-depth article.
The admission charge at the gate is $10 for adults 13 and older on Fridays and Saturdays and free for children 12 and under. All other days, 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. In previous years, there has been 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 oriented before you 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, youth archery, tie dye and a rock-climbing wall.
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. The fair’s website now has a searchable guide to food vendors and a food map.
ANIMALS: Make sure to wander around the barns, allowing your children to see the horses, cows, sheep and pigs up close. It is fascinating to see the animals up close — but even more so, to meet the farm kids who traveled to the fair to show their animals in the livestock shows. Some of them sleep in the barns on cots just feet from their animals!
THE CARNIVAL: The Midway is the carnival part of the fair, full of spinning rides and crane games and aimless teenagers. 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 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. 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.)
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 $35 to $45 and up. Grandstand acts this year include Tim McGraw, Maren Morris, Nelly and REO Speedwagon.
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