Minnesota State Fair with Tots Survival Guide

Photo by Lori Writer /  St. Paul by Tricycle

Photo by Lori Writer / St. Paul by Tricycle

(Check out my annotated and opinionated print-and-go Minnesota State Fair with Tots Map and other State Fair coverage.)

Whether you’re a seasoned Fair goer or the Fair is new to you, heading to the Fair with kids is an entirely different experience. Hopefully, though, not “different,” in the Minnesota-sense of the word, meaning, “I don’t care for it, but I”m too courteous to say.”

My husband and I had our first date at the Fair –cue dreamy memories of sky-riding and hand-holding and sharing cheese curds– and it’s been a must-do for us ever since. We then honed our pre-child strategy to perfection. We always went at least twice: once to get all of our “essentials” out of the way: cheese curds, animal barns, DNR pond, butterheads, big pumpkin, crop art, honey sunflower seed ice cream. (My husband calls this “the canon”.)  And then at least once more to try our second-string favorites and either delicious sounding or curiosity-driven new items. We had our system down.

So, we were completely caught off-guard by our first visit with a newborn. We brought our carefully-packed diaper bag, but turns out, that wasn’t the only adjustment we needed to make. We tried to dash through the Fair, snacks-on-sticks in hand, at a frenetic pace, almost exactly as we always had. We tried to do too much and prepared too little. Our ice-pack bottle bag kept baby’s formula too cold, and he wouldn’t drink anything. Not that he’d nurse anyway: too over-stimulated. Sweaty. Screamy. Wretched experience. We learned our lesson. We do a little better every year and by the time tot is a teenager, well, he’ll insist on going without us anyway.

Here are my best recommendations on how to not only survive the Minnesota State Fair, but really enjoy it. I wanted to call it my Minnesota State Fair thrival guide, but I worried no one would know what that was, but here goes. How to have a blast at the fair even with a infant or toddler:

Plan ahead: really, this is just my best advice for parenting, and life, anyway. But, it will be much more difficult, and a lot slower, to get around the fair with a wee one. Yes, they have cash machines at the fair, but don’t burn up 20 valuable minutes (as we did our first year), running to the ATM. Bring a pocket full of cash. Also, don’t forget your tickets and Blue Ribbon Book. Print out my annotated State Fair Map, get out a pen, and mark your favorites. (Or do whatever the technology-savvy-smart-phone version of that is.) Better yet, rank your favorites (and get buy-in from your spouse) so that if your child has a melt down and you need to leave early, at least you will have done your must-dos. Pack your bag and lay out your clothes the night before. Charge your camera and cell phone. Put the stroller or wagon in the car. Flip through your Blue Ribbon Book and dog-ear the pages.

But be flexible: be prepared to adapt or ditch your plans if lines stretch the entire length of Underwood Street or if your child starts to fuss.

And don’t overdo: Seriously, I can’t stress this enough. Plan on cutting your activities to one-third of what you tried in the past. Make a second or third visit, if you must. Weeknight dinners at the Fair are glorious!

Go early: If you’re kid’s like mine, he’s up at 6am anyway, why not just get to the Fair early? It’s cooler and the lines are shorter. Traffic is lighter and you’ll be able to park closer. And, you can see and do lots of stuff before you need to be home by nap time. The gates open at 6am. Why not eat breakfast at the Fair?  Here’s a list of food concessionaires that open earlier than 9am (which is the typically start time for most things at the Fair). I recommend:

  • Farmers Union (no full breakfast, but very good roasted-on-site coffee) (6am)
  • The Peg (table service!) (6:30am)
  • Moe and Joe’s (but no seating, unfortunately). (6:30am)
  • Salem Lutheran Church (also table service, but there may be a line to get in) (7am)
  • French Creperie (7am)
  • French Meadow (the two Frenchies are next to each other, so it’s easy to get something from each and do both) (7am)
  • Tejas Express in the Food Buidling (8am)

I’m also very much looking forward to Mancini’s breakfast (7am). O’Gara’s (7am) looks solid, too. And, of course, Hamline Dining Hall is a classic.

(Not particularly kid-focused, but the piece I wrote about breakfast at the Fair for Heavy Table, which was picked up by Serious Eats, can be found here.)

In addition, here are some of the kid-friendly activities that open at 8am (again, in advance of the more typical attraction start-time of 9am):

  • LIttle Farm Hands
  • Moo, Baa and Oink booths (on weekends and Labor Day only)
  • Pet Center
  • DNR Fish pond
  • DNR Adopt-a-River Sculpture
  • Machinery Hill (always open)

Also, it doesn’t open until 9am, but it doesn’t hurt to be first in line at the Miracle of Birth Center (line at the side door–fewer people). After that, the place is a zoo. Well, farm. You know what I mean.

Eat real food: Well, at least feed your kid real food. Especially for breakfast. By “real food,” I mean not bacon-ed and battered and deep-fried. You’ll know it when you see it. Definitely work in your favorite deep-fried-indulgences-on-a-stick, but everyone will have a better time if you have a layer of real food in your stomachs first. In my map, I tried to include my favorite real food recommendations, rather than my “Fair food” favs (though, of course, a few of my favorite indulgences snuck on the list.)

Seek shade, and, for infants, a little quiet: I also tried to note food vendors that offer shade. Other shady spots I like include Baldwin Park, the 107.1 lactation station, the bandstand at Heritage Square. Infants, especially, need a few leisurely quiet stops. There’s also a nursing station in the Care and Assistance Booth.

Wear comfortable shoes: Very unglamorous, I know. 

Measure how tall your child is: so you can anticipate which Kidway rides s/he can ride. 32” is the shortest-height for the Kidway rides. (Read more about which Kidway rides are available to small children  in my “Best Bets for Tots” piece.)

Think about transportation: By transportation, I mean both getting to the Fair, and getting around the Fair. Baby carrier, stroller or wagon? Your own or rentals?  There are four locations at the Fair to rent wagons or strollers, first come, first serve.  Bring your ID. I’ve noted prices and locations on my map (they will be marked with one of red pins). Think about what activities you like to do at the Fair and whether or not you can bring a stroller or wagon. Think about whether you’ll want your wagon or stroller to have shade and whether your baby carrier will feel too hot. Think about collapsibility.

Take a moment to plan for emergencies: tag your kid with one of the free ID bracelets at the info booth. Take a photo of your kid in the morning so that you’ve got one of how she’s attired today so you can give that to police or whomever if you get separate. Have your cell phone and program the State Fair Police and Medical Emergency number into it: 651.288.4500.

Pack well: Here are some things to consider: hats, refillable water bottle, spray mister (or better yet, a combo water bottle/spray mister), sippy cup, bottles, wipes, more wipes (ice cream happens), diapers/pull-ups, teether, pacifier, snacks, baby spoons, a small plastic knife (to cut food into servings to share), a small dish, a small toy or two, sun-protection, light blanket to use as sunshade or whatever, change of outfit (poop happens, ice cream happens), your state fair map, Blue Ribbon book, cash, admission tickets, kid-way tickets, cell phone, camera, stroller, baby carrier, wagon, bike lock (if you plan to leave your stroller or wagon unattended for any length of time, say, to do the skyride), boxed single serving shelf-stable milk for toddlers, single serving/shelf-stable formula for infants. Steichen’s Grocery (near the animal barns) sells infant care and other supplies if you run out. The 107.1 Lactation Station is also stocked with diapers, wipes, ointment, and water. (Locations noted on my map.)

Start a tradition: We take a family picture in front of the “Greetings from Minnesota” mosaic (on the side of the Food Building) every year. Pick a tradition that works for your family.

Have fun. Take lots of pictures:  Kris O’Gara of O’Gara’s Bar and Grill in St. Paul and of O’Gara’s at the Fair says, teasingly, when asked for Fair advice for parents of young children, “Get a babysitter!” And, then, adds, “My husband and I always brought our kids to the Fair one day and then had one adult day. Now all our kids work here!”  

Pat Mancini of Mancini’s Char House & Lounge in St. Paul and 2013 Minnesota State Fair newcomer Mancini’s al Fresco says, ” “The Fair is still and will always be a Minnesota Family get together. Great family memories are made there. Take lots of pictures.”

Stay tuned for my recommendations (“Minnesota 2013 State Fair : Best Bets for Tots,  Attractions & Entertainment” and Best Bets for Tots, Food ) as well as my updates throughout the Fair.  Find my annotated and opinionated print-and-go Minnesota State Fair with Tots Map and all of my Fair coverage here.

Minnesota State Fair 2013: Thursday August 22 – Labor Day September 22

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