We’re a “fair family.”
To me, my kiddos, my sisters, and my parents, the Iowa State Fair is a big–no, it’s a huge–deal. A single day at the fairgrounds is not enough for all that we want to do.
So we do the fair up right for three full days, starting around 9:00am and going non-stop until we plod back to our car with sore feet and sunburned ears at 9:00pm.
Unfortunately, my husband doesn’t like the fair. That means if I want to go, I’m on my own with the kiddos. So how does a mom survive 12 hours of the Iowa State Fair with two toddlers? I’ll tell ya, it’s not easy. The fairgrounds are huge, so you’re walking everywhere. It’s hot, too sunny, sometimes muddy, and kid-friendly foods aren’t exactly common. Here’s how we get through three days of the fair, and still manage to come out the other end with a barrel full of great memories.
State Fair Survival 101
For the rookies, here’s a handy map!
Navigating the fairgrounds as a noob can be tricky, so I made you a handy Google Map with all of these must-dos mapped out for ya!
Things to See and Do…
1 — SAFETY FIRST
We always enter at the main gate on Grand Avenue, so our first stop is the 102.5 FM booth right in front of the Grandstand to get our KID-FIND bracelets. You write in your name and phone number, and slap it on their wrist (Squeak preferred his ankle). If your kiddo gets lost, you’ll get paged over the fairgrounds PA system or someone will call your cell. Yay, safety! This always sets my mind at ease.
2 — TRAINS, FIRE TRUCKS, AND STOP-DROP-AND-ROLL
The Hall of Law and Hall of Flame are a toddler paradise. Located at the east end of the Grandstand, you’ll find a full-size fire truck cab where your kiddos can pretend to drive and flip switches (they actually turn on the truck’s lights!), a huuuuuuge model train set up by the railroad safety folks, and my personal favorite from childhood, the Stop-Drop-and-Roll. There’s a padded mat where your kiddo can practice, with little foot prints to show them the drill. Real firefighters from around the state are on hand to help. Don’t miss Sparky, a talking dog who carries on a real conversation with your toddler (Squeak was dumbfounded–but it’s just a firefighter behind a one-way mirror, moving the big dog’s mouth… but I will say it’s very realistic!), and a practice phone for your kiddo to take a shot at dialing 9-1-1 in case of emergency. Add in the police badge tattoos and Iowa State Patrol pencils, it’s a must-stop for little ones.
3 — THE BABY ANIMAL BUILDING
If you take your kids to the fair without seeing the Knapp Animal Learning Center, you’ve failed as a parent. Okay, I’m kidding. A little bit.
Seriously, I’m 36 years old and this is my favorite building on the grounds. It’s just north of the Bud Tent and Ye Olde Mill. Inside, there’s a huge pond with a waterslide for a big group of fuzzy-wuzzy baby ducks. Next to that is a large incubator with scores of baby chicks hatching all day long, where they’re transferred to a large pen with warming lamps. Their soft little peep-peep-peeps are musical! Ostrich eggs are hatching in a similar manner just a few yards away, and next to them, four full-grown turkeys waddle about and munch on feed. And those are just the BIRDS!
Eight momma pigs lounge in farrowing stalls in the back corners, and the wait in line is worth it to see teeny-weeny baby pigs. They bring in new moms every few days so you are seeing only the newest and freshest piglets. Those mamas kick out 8 to 12 babies in a litter and have two long rows of nipples. If you’re lucky, you’ll be there when one of them is giving birth and can see the miracle in action!
Between the pigs, four cows wait to birth their calves. These moms are bred to birth during the fair, and they’ll cycle them out when the babies are a few days old to give the next mom a chance to come in. Next to the cows is a row of mama goats with their newborn kids (or swollen bellies, about to give birth).
One awesome addition this year is Baby Animal Birth alerts. You text ‘BABY’ to 75782 and you’ll get a text whenever an animal is giving birth. We got there in time to see a mama goat having her first of two kids. We couldn’t get close enough to see it, but they have a cameraman there videotaping it and broadcast it on big-screen TVs and projection screens around the building. It was pretty cool; when mama goat finally pushed out Baby #1, the whole building full of people cheered and clapped!
And oh yeah–the Knapp Center has a great mom’s room, with rockers for nursing, changing tables, a pumping area, and free wipes. I spent a TON of time there when we took a two-week-old Squeak to the fair.
4 — LITTLE HANDS ON THE FARM
Let your kiddos get their feet wet and “practice” being farmers for a day at LHOTF, located just north of the Baby Animals Building. Kids get to put on an apron, grab a basket, plant “seeds,” scoop grain for their cows, harvest soybeans for soy diesel, pick apples, milk a (fake) cow, drive a tractor (it’s pedal-powered), and sell their crops at a farmer’s market. With their money, they can buy a snack from the Little Hands store, and there’s some good stuff in there! Ice cream sandwiches, raisins, Twinkies, crackers, bananas, apples… a good mix of healthy and not-so-healthy, but I guarantee your kiddo will see something he/she likes to eat. It’s also a great photo op. On Fridays and weekends, the line can get pretty long, so try to do LHOTF at the very end of the day when the fair is busy.
5 — PETTING ZOO
Just past Little Hands is a petting zoo with some fun animals. The cups of feed are $1.00, and you can go on a pony ride or a camel ride for $7.00. They have zebra, kangaroo, lots of goats, an ostrich that I swear was giving me the stinkeye, a llama, and several other animals I couldn’t even pronounce. The kiddos love it. Remember to sanitize afterward, and it’s not a bad idea to scoot back into the Knapp Centers swank bathrooms afterward for a proper hand-washing.
6 — BEES AND BUTTERFLIES
After getting the germs off, mosey back south past the Bud Tent to the Agriculture Building. On the upper level you’ll find a neat exhibit with four working beehives behind glass. My Peanut, who’s four, loved this. As a kid I always liked trying to find the queen in each hive, which they conveniently mark with a little white dot. She’s also the biggest bee in the hive! You can sample some flavored honeys with pretzel sticks, too. On the other side of the building is a neat monarch butterfly exhibit with a large glass enclosure full of butterflies. Peanut had to be physically removed from it because she was so obsessed. They drink orange Gatorade from little dispensers with their probiscus. Neat!
On the lower level of the Ag Building is the butter cow and her butter friends, but to be honest, I never even bother looking anymore. A butter cow is a butter cow is a butter cow. And the crowd at those displays is always nuts. But don’t leave the Ag Building without snagging a hard-boiled egg on a stick from the Egg Council booth in the west end of the building! They’re free, and if the line is long, find the shorter line on the other side of the booth. Nobody seems to know it’s there and that line is always way shorter.
7 — DISCOVERY GARDEN
After munching on your hard-boiled egg, head outside the Ag Building via the west steps and water into the Discovery Garden. There’s a tunnel covered in vines that your kiddo will go cray-cray over. My toddlers must have buzzed through that thing 400 times in an hour. They were red-faced and sweaty and didn’t want to leave. A koi pond with a footbridge over it was a big hit too. Be sure to check out the mile-high sunflowers!
8 — I MILKED A COW
Located just down Rock Island Ave from the Ag Building is the Cattle Building, where you’ll find I Milked a Cow (IMAC). There, you can get your hands on some udders for just $2 a kid! My Peanut did this for the first time this year, and she loved it. (“Mommy, do I squeeze and then pull, or pull and then squeeze?“) The Jerseys you milk are super gentle. IMAC is open from 9am-11am, 1pm-3pm, and 4pm-6pm every day of the fair. Afterward, post-hand-washing, you can watch dairy cows being milked by machine in the milking parlor at the north end of the building.
9 — BILL RILEY TALENT SEARCH
I’ve been going to the Bill Riley Talent Search at noon since I was a wee one. For an hour, some of the state’s most talented tap dancers, lyrical ballerinas, vocalists, piano players, and gymnasts do their thing on the Bill Riley Stage. My nephew also happens to be a semifinalist this year, so I’m partial to his act, but honestly, most everyone you’ll see in the talent show will be dazzling. I listened to an 11-year-old play Hedwig’s Theme from Harry Potter on piano (wow), watched a national-title-winning dancer, and heard an 8-year-old sing a song from Wicked. It was seriously cool. Try to get there early and snag a shady spot with a good view.
10 — THE AVENUE OF BREEDS
Mosey back onto Rock Island Ave and down to the Swine Barn to check out the Avenue of Breeds (northwest corner of the barn), an all-in-one-place menagerie of 125 different animals, including fun facts about each one. Meet over 55 breeds of cattle, horses, sheep and fish. The Avenue of Breeds also showcases exotic animals, like the majestic elk that never ceases to amaze me with its huge rack. (Ha! I said huge rack and it wasn’t even dirty.) Before you leave the barn, buzz over to the west entrance to feast your eyes on 1,155 pounds of bacon: the Big Boar. His balls could smother a small child so keep your kiddos close at hand. 😉
11 — ART ATTACK
After the Ave, if it’s after 1pm, head up the hill to the Cultural Building’s center courtyard, where you can create a work of art for free. There are watercolor paints on every table, along with brushes and water, and they provide you with paper taped to a board. Create your work of art and take it with you–it dries super fast. If you’re a fan of art, be sure to check out the Make It and Take Its on the second level, including a magnet and name bracelet.
If you’ve got a girl with you who loves dolls, be sure to hit the handmade miniatures and dollhouse display on the first level. They’re so intricate and really beautiful.
12 — THE PLAYGROUND AND BIG WOODEN TRAIN
If you’ve still got energy to spare, mosey back up the hill toward the Cultural Center and let your little ones explore the playground next to the MidAmerican Energy Stage. Aside from the climbing wall and playground, there’s also a big wooden train built by the Clearfield Lions Club. It’s been there for years, but it’s a bigger hit than the fancy play structure, and is legit for kids from age 2 up to 10. We had to bribe both my kids to leave when it was time to go.
13 — THE BIG SLIDE
Cap off your day at the fair with a ride down the Big Slide, located just south of the Bill Riley Stage. For $2.50 per rider, you can grab your gunny sack and head up the stairs with your little one. Plop them down between your legs, give yourself a push and YELL! There are microphones mounted above the slide to catch the screams of riders. It’s not remotely dangerous and your kiddo will loooooove it. Plus, one parent can stay down below and take video, to catch the huge smiles you’ll get from your toddler.
If there’s time…
14 — THE FISH, GEESE, SWANS, AND GIANT BEAR
The DNR building at the west end of the Grandstand is chock-full of freshwater fish found in the state. Squeak was over the moon: “FISH! MOMMY, WOOKADA FISH!” There’s a life-size taxidermied juvenile bear (killed in the state by hunters who I don’t think knew what they were shooting, the jerks), and an outside courtyard with swans, geese, and funny little ducks.
15 — THE CHICKS, DUCKS, AND BUNNIES BUILDING
This one is a bit off the beaten path, but worth the slightly uphill walk (though it’s nothing like the huffing and puffing you’ll do after pushing a stroller up Expo Hill). Located east of the Knapp Amphitheater (see map), this building houses chickens and ducks galore in the early part of the fair, and bunnies galore in the latter part. Peanut and I were there when it was chickens/ducks, and she loved running around counting the eggs that’d been laid. We saw Japanese Black Cocks (I’m not kidding, that’s what they were called) and feather-footed roosters that looked like something out of a National Geographic. It was a little noisy from the crowing, but still cool. I bet the bunnies are just as awesome.
16 — COWBOY-MOUNTED SHOOTING
This only applies the first Friday of the fair, but it’s by far my favorite thing ever. It’s the closest you can come to being a real-live Wild West cowboy or cowgirl these days. Basically, you get on a horse, load two pistols with blanks filled with walnut shell pieces, and shoot balloons. You get one shot at each one, then you get your ass (and your horse) back over the line as quickly as possible. It’s loud, so you’ll want to take earplugs or carefully cover your kiddo’s ears. The first Friday of the fair it starts at 9am and goes until noon, starting with kids/amateurs and wrapping up with the pros, who are REALLY impressive. See it in action in this video from last year’s show. My sister and her kids make a cameo!
A — ICE COLD MILK
The FFA has a vending machine in the middle of the Agriculture Building that sells little bottles of milk for a buck. Grab a straw from a nearby vendor and the kiddos will love the cold drink.
B — PB&J ON A STICK
The Salad Bowl serves up this toddler hit, and they have two locations: the upper level of the Ag Building and the first floor of the Cultural Center. Just watch them with the stick–it is pokey on the end.
C — JR’S DONUTS
These were pretty much the only fair food my picky eaters would touch. They’re about the size of a half-dollar, fried, and sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon. They’re served warm (almost hot) and they’re sinfully delicious. They also served as a handy bribery tool if the kids were being terrors.
D — THE BARGAIN ICE CREAM
You can get ice cream all over the fair, but by far the cheapest is on the sidewalk just south of Bill Riley Stage, about two booths to the west of the Rib Shack. It’s not listed on the menu, but you can get a kid-sized dish of soft serve for only $2.00! You just need to ask. Bonus: the owner is super nice, too.
Don’t Leave Home Without…
1 — GRANDMA
I can’t possibly thank my mother enough for her help at the fair. All three days, when Squeak started getting cranky in the afternoon, she commandeered the stroller and sent me and Peanut off on our own. Grandma pushed Squeak until he fell asleep, then parked him in a shady spot to nap for two hours each afternoon. He awoke refreshed and happy and was a lot easier to be around since he’d been napping. It was wonderful and I am so eternally grateful for her willingness to sacrifice her time so Squeak could get some much-needed Zzzz’s.
2 — ENOUGH SNACKS TO FEED AN ARMY
Most everything at the fair comes in meal sizes, so kid-sized snacks are hard to come by. We packed a bag full of goldfish crackers, raisins, animal crackers, granola bars, and more. Extra hint: Take about double what you think you’ll need. It’s surprising how hungry the little boogers are!
3 — WATER BOTTLES
I carry an insulated stainless steel Contigo Sheffield bottle for myself, and two small ones for the kids. Whenever we spotted a water fountain, we filled their bottles with chilled water. Because of the heat, they were thirsty a lot. Each day we let the kiddos have a small bottle of milk, which you can get for just $1.00 at an FFA vending machine on the lower level of the Agriculture Building. They have chocolate, skim, 2%, and strawberry milk in resealable plastic bottles. The machine is next to the egg-on-a-stick booth. Everywhere else on the grounds, milk is $2 or more, so you can save a buck here.
4 — A BACKPACK
I carry a crossbody purse on a normal day, but even that would have been a pain to lug around at the fair. Instead, my mom loaned me a drawstring backpack with side pockets, which ended up being a lifesaver. I barely knew I was wearing it and I could haul my heavy water bottle and one kiddo water bottle, too. I could also stuff pens and other swag into it easily without weighing me down. I used one like this.
5 — A PICNIC BLANKET
Toddlers need to focus on their food. I learned this the hard way, by offering Squeak his ham-n-cheese sandwich while we watched a couple of burned-out acrobats put on an awful show. The cheese ended up on the ground in about four seconds and we spent the rest of the show in a battle of wills as he tried to eat dirt-crusted cheese and I tried to stop him.
6 — EXTRA KID CLOTHES AND SWIMSUITS
Someone’s going to fall in mud, or poop out of their diaper, or spill milk all over themselves. Pack an extra outfit for each kiddo, including socks. You may never need it, but if you do, you’ll be glad it’s there. There’s also the great fountain just south of the Ag building that’s great on hot days (pictured below). Throw the kiddos in their suits and let them frolic. You can rest on a shady bench and they can work off some energy. Everybody wins!
7 — A BEACH TOWEL AND STROLLER FAN
We draped ours over the stroller while the kids napped, and clipped it in place with large clips (conveniently available from the Simpson College booth last year, who didn’t seem to notice that I came by their booth four times in an hour, tee hee). On warmer days we set up a battery-powered fan to keep cool under the towel. And trust me when I say to get an enclosed fan (one with a container around the blades). I made the mistake of buying one with foam blades that wouldn’t hurt little fingers, but they could touch the blades… and they spent the entire time playing with it until it eventually fell apart. Annoying.
8 — A HEALTHY DOSE OF PATIENCE
Fairgoing with toddlers tests your patience bigtime. I lost my shit a couple times. Luckily my mom was there to help when I was really fed up, or I would’ve posted my kids for sale on Craigslist. Whether you’ve got help or not, try to keep your cool. If you’re freaking out, or your kids are, make sure you’re staying well fed and well hydrated. Go find one of the many air-conditioned buildings. Hunger and heat will make anyone into a bear.