We used to live in Indy so when my girls were four and two we started a tradition of going to the Indiana State Fair. Here we are eight years later, a two hour drive away and the tradition lives on! Yes, even though I live within walking distance of our county fair, I still drive two hours each summer to attend the State Fair. Why? Because there’s so much more to do!
This year I took my three children (ages 12, 10 and 6) to the fair along with my 3yo niece. I also convinced my sister to meet us there and we ended up meeting up with another friend of mine and her two boys (10 and 8). We spent nearly six busy, fun-filled hours together – and easily could have stayed longer! How do you keep that many kids happy & occupied at a place that many think of as smelly, hot and expensive? Let me share my hard-earned Indiana State Fair tips.
1. Go early. Come on – you’ve got kids so you know you’re all up and ready to go places by 9am. If you hit the fair before noon on a weekday you can easily park for free in the infield. That means you’re within easy walking distance of the car at the end of a long day or in the middle of the day in case you need to run back to the car for more sunscreen or a change of clothes. And when you go in the morning it’s not as crowded or hot.
2. Read the fair schedule on their website at least a week before the fair starts. The Indiana State Fair offers tons of money-saving promotions and I strongly recommend planning your visit (or multiple visits!) around one of them. Each year there is a coupon in the Indianapolis Star for free fair admission. This year the coupon was in the 8/8 newspaper and gave free admission for the following Thursday. (and even if you don’t get the paper the .50 you’ll pay for the paper is cheaper than the $8 you’ll pay at the fair gate!) We couldn’t hit the free day this year so instead picked the $2 Tuesday deal – and what a great deal! Fair admission for $2 per person. Each food vendor had a $2 special – and they were good specials i.e. $2 BBQ sandwiches at the pork tent, $2 for 2lbs of curly fries with cheese(!), $2 corn dogs, $2 ice cream cones… it was a great deal. And all midway rides were only $2. I might have saved more money on $2 day than I would have on free day.
3. Hit the animal barns first. Yep, the animals smell bad to us city folk. But they are significantly less smelly when you go in the morning than when you go in the steamy afternoon of a hot fair day. Plus the people in the animal barns seem a little friendlier in the morning – probably because they’re not hot & smelly yet either. I encourage my kids to ask questions, especially when they see another young person taking care of an animal. Some of our favorite parts of the fair happen in those quick tours of the animal barns. I recommend starting your tour at the cattle barn and working your way East. Why? See the next tip.
4. It’s time for some free refreshments. By now you’ve been at the fair for 1-2 hours. Your kids are probably starting to get a little grouchy and hungry. If you’re still in your stroller pushing days, make sure you have a small cooler along for just these circumstances – food you bring from home is immediately available and helps save money. You could also bring along a small backpack to carry snacks. Now that my kids are older I throw all caution to the wind and wing it because on the East side of the Indiana State Fair you can always find free food 🙂
If you’re coming from the animal barns, walk along the grandstand side to turn the East bend – just before you get to the corner, keep your eyes peeled because there are nearly always a few free give-aways tucked in here. This year the IU Health tent was making free smoothies and about 20 feet away Turkey Hill was giving away free cups of ice cream. Mmmmm. You’ll eat your free goodies while walking past the horse racing barns – if you see some horse people out in front of those barns don’t forget to stop. This area is never crowded and the racing horses are quite different from the other horses you’ve already seen – it’s worth a visit. Once you’re past the barns the first exhibit area on your right is the Pathway to Water exhibit. And it is just the respite your kids need.
5. Take advantage of shady, quiet spots. The Indiana Pathway to Water is one of our favorite spots in the fair. Why? It’s rarely busy. It’s filled with trees and water so it cools us off. And they offer free drinks of cold water – just right to wash down those free snacks. Once you’ve got your cup of water, keep your eyes open for a mini-covered bridge – it leads to a break for all of you. Adults grab a seat while the kids participate in a fun, learning experience in this shady glen. This year the area had large chalk tables for drawing and a scavenger hunt. We spent at least 15 fun minutes hanging out in this oasis. Which gave us a nice boost of energy for the back half of the fairgrounds.
6. Little Hands on the Farm. This is a kid-favorite and just around the corner from the Pathway to Water. Your children get to pretend to work on a farm. Feed pretend animals. Plant pretend seeds. Harvest pretend vegetables. And trade in their hard labor for pretend money at the end that buys them… a free drink or snack! (keep the kids fed is one of my cardinal rules.)
7. Pioneer Village. There is lots to see and do in this area of the fair. From a free circus show to chain saw demonstrations. From antique tractors to a working flour mill. You could find yourself spending an hour in this area of the fair easily. And if you keep your eyes open, you’ll also find some free goodies – one of our required stops is the Maple Syrup shack which hands out free samples of pure maple syrup and maple cream. Mmmmmmm.
8. The free stuff keeps on coming. There are plenty of places to purchase things on this side of the fair but if you keep your eyes open, you’ll find plenty of free treats too. The Farm Bureau building is a great stop (with easy to reach bathrooms too). Some years there is a Taste of Indiana exhibit here with tons of free snacks. This year they were giving away bags of Indiana popcorn. There is no sign telling you – but go in the building and you’ll find something. They were also giving guided bus rides back over to the animal barns every hour so you could actually pet some of the animals and listen to a farmer talk about them. What a great idea!
The Indiana State Police has a booth back in this area of the fair and my kids love to talk to the police officers and get some free pencils, badges or rulers. There are plenty of vendors in this area if you need to buy a snack or pay to feed some baby goats. Take your time as you wander through.
9. The Department of Natural Resources. This building is a fun one because it involves lots of water and fish. Walk in the building and you’ll tour a series of fish tanks highlighting the different kinds of fish that live in Indiana’s waters. Then go out back to see the fishing pond. The DNR puts on all sorts of demonstrations back there and even if you hit the pond between demonstrations, it’s fun to walk around and look for the fish. Make sure you walk back out along the west side of the building. There are more ponds over there with some big (i.e. easily spotted by the kids) fish. And a butterfly garden is tucked away over there too.
10. Have you noticed the lack of rides yet? If your kids are too young for the rides you can easily hit the walkway to the infield parking lot and call it a day. If not – you’re getting ready to round the bend straight into the midway area, so be prepared. I always set expectations ahead of time. I give the kids X number of rides – no more, no less and no complaining. It provides a fun break and no one ever gets over-tired from spending too much time spinning in crazy-fast circles.
11. There’s more to see! Depending on the age of your kids, you might be done for the day. If not – I have some more favorites that we highly recommend:
– Behind the DNR building is the 4H exhibit hall. This is where the 4H kids from around the state show off their hard work. It can be fun for kids to see work done by other kids their age.
– Right next to the Midway are two of our favorite buildings: The Agriculture Building and the Family Arts Building. The Agriculture Building is honestly one of the best kept secrets of the State Fair. It’s air-conditioned, has great bathrooms and lots of healthy food. Some years I pack sandwiches and we duck in here to buy some bowls of fresh fruit and then grab one of their tables to have a nice, cool lunch break. Don’t forget to check out the super large pumpkins and other vegetables while you’re here. And if you’re lucky you’ll be there in time for the watermelon seed spitting contest (the only time I’ve ever seen this building crowded).
The Family Arts building has three floors (kind of four counting the basement) of baked goods, quilts, artwork and more on display. Lots of things for curious minds to see. And this year – they have lots & lots of legos. This was my 6yo son’s favorite part of the fair. Each lego display is impressive on its own but they also include a seek & find sheet (find 5 Star Wars characters, find the bull chasing someone down the street, find the 4 blue birds etc etc) We could have spent hours looking at these lego displays. Some obviously done by professionals but there were also a series done by 4H kids – my son got home after this long day and was inspired to start his own creation. He’s building the Indiana State Fair 🙂
– The Our Land Pavilion. This spot has some fun hands-on exhibits for the kids to play and learn. It also has the ridiculously large (and ridiculously cool) cheese sculpture.
– The Rabbit & Poultry building. Yes, I know I told you to visit the animal barns in the morning but this one is small and the animals are small too. It’s fun to walk through and check out the rabbits, chickens, geese and roosters.
– When you leave the Rabbit & Poultry building you’ll be right next to the exhibit halls. If the kids have the energy for it, this can be a great place to snag more free goodies. Fans, hats, pencils, temporary tatoos, bags… lots of stuff. Just smile at the vendors and thank them as you stroll past with your crew.
Is there more to do? Sure, but I’m just sharing a highlight of things that are fun for the kids and won’t break your budget. One of the reasons I love the Indiana State Fair so much is that I don’t have to spend a lot of money to have a great time. (another reason is all the great food – can I tell you how delicious my pork burger was from the pork tent yesterday??)
The Indiana State Fair is one of our favorite summer traditions. We’re already looking forward to next year’s visit! Want some more great tips for hitting the fair with kids in tow? Check out Arrows Sent Forth post, especially focused on the younger crowd.