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Family Guide to the Iowa State Fair

Iowa State Fair tips for families

I’m an Iowa native who has been going to the Iowa State Fair since the cotton candy was as big as me (EVIDENCE presented). I even competed in the Bill Riley State Fair Talent Search twice. 

iowa state fair cotton candy

Me at Iowa State Fair circa 1992

Now that I have a daughter, the annual visit looks different. I remember trekking from our car with a 6-week old and barely lasting an hour. No matter what your situation, you can enjoy the fair as a family!

Here are some tips to enjoy, and survive, the Iowa State Fair with kids:

When to go

The Iowa State Fair runs August 10-20 in 2017, giving you 10 days to find time to visit. Regardless of which day you go, buy your tickets in advance to save $4! No need to make a special trip to the grocery store for these, you can buy them online. Remember, kids under the age of 6 get in for free, or $4 in advance for ages 6-11.

My standard strategy is to go on a weekday. Yes, that requires you take a day off if you’re a working parent, but it minimizes the crowds. My parents like to hit the doors as soon as they open because the crowds and temperatures are lower.

I traipse in around 10 a.m. and leave shortly after lunch, right after I’ve flirted dangerously with the nap-time line. One mom suggested you go in the morning with the kids, then get a sitter and go back for date night! My husband and I had a romantic date at the fair last year, complete with one of those old-timey photo shoots.

We did catch wind of a genius strategy if you’re really dreading the whole trip. Go before the fair even opens! There are food stands set up for the thousands of competitors and volunteers getting everything ready for the fair. If you go early enough, you can even park within the fairgrounds! Some exhibits, like the butter cow sculpture, are open – and animals are trickling into their pens. Granted, it is NOT the full experience and only a few of the standard food stands are open, but it’s an option.  

How to get there?

I’ll admit it, I pay the $10 parking fee to have my car parked close to the fair. But, every parent needs to know about and explore the park and ride option provided by DART. You simply park at either Southeast Polk High School, the State Capitol, or the Center Street parking garage and hop on a DART bus for $2 round-trip. One mom pointed out to me that for her 2-year-old riding the bus was just as exciting as the rest of the fair. There is also plenty of free street parking west of the fairgrounds if you need to get your steps in (and your kids can withstand the walk)

What to do?

Planting “seeds” at Little Hands on the Farm.

A million people attend the fair each year so you’re literally going to get a million different opinions on what you can’t miss at the fair. I surveyed some moms and the VERY top mentioned thing to do is the Giant Slide! Last I checked the slide cost $2.50 to ride.

There is a new wristband program for the “thrill” rides, and some of the attractions have moved so explore this webpage if your kiddo is a thrill seeker. The Giant Slide is not included in the wristband package.

Another favorite for the kids is the Little Hands on the Farm where kids perform chores and earn money for a prize.

Finally, you can’t leave the Iowa State Fair without seeing some animals. My favorite stop is at the Knapp Animal Learning Center where pregnant animals give birth during the fair!

Need more ideas? The fair lists some of the weekday activities here. Really, there is SO much to see and do, just walk around and you’ll find something captivating.

What to eat?

Honestly, this is hands down the most important part of the fair for me. I even survived the fair when I was on Weight Watchers. It was easy – there are no calories at the fair, ha ha! But really, it’s once a year so give yourself some slack. My husband and I share everything we buy – and now the little one is even scavenging bites out of those. That combined with walking an average of 8 miles, just buy that deep fried snickers!

My go-to items every year: A gizmo, nitro ice cream, deep fried snickers bar, and now I like the corn in a cup. Other favorites are of course lemonade, bucket-o-cookies, and Bauder’s peppermint ice cream sandwiches.

Turkey

According to the fair website, outside food and beverage is not allowed. You can bring empty water bottles and fill them at a few fountains when you are on the grounds. You CAN bring strollers and there ARE private nursing areas. One mom suggested packing an extra set of clothes so the kids can play in the splash pads.

In general, if you are a first-timer, visit this FAQ page. Otherwise, just walk in with your advance admission ticket and prepare to be amazing. Nothing compares to the Iowa State Fair!

What’s your favorite thing to do at the Iowa State Fair?

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