When I was a kid, the North Dakota State Fair was a summer staple. Growing up just a few blocks from the fairgrounds meant my brothers and I lived the fair frenzy a little longer than most; we loved seeing those first trucks roll in carrying pieces of the ferris wheel, ticket booths, and carousel, folded in the back at odd angles, a thrilling jigsaw just waiting to be assembled. We would watch in wonder as the fair sprang to life almost overnight, signaling the pinnacle of summer was almost upon us.
Today, my husband and I are raising our three kids in that same neighborhood—and I see that same excitement grow in them as the end of July approaches and the fairgrounds begin to buzz. They can't wait to pile onto the stroller, sunglasses, sippy cups, and shining eyes at the ready, and head to the fair.
Taking a stroller load of kids to one of the busiest events in the state might sound daunting, but with a little bit of planning—and a few insider tips—it can be a fun family adventure to look forward to every year (that doesn't have to break the bank).
Save on parking
The NDSF has a free lot located on the east side of the fairgrounds. If you're getting there early in the day, check this lot first. Paid lots are operated by third parties in the surrounding blocks, and the farther from the gates you go, the more inexpensive the daily fee (which generally ranges from $5-15 dollars).
Take advantage of gate admission specials + coupons
Check the NDSF website for printable coupons and promotional days.
There is usually a day for half-off carnival ride bracelets (must print coupon from NDSF website by a certain date), and military appreciation day, which includes a free picnic for all military members and their families and free carnival rides with military ID. A full list of vendors participating in 50% off specials on Tuesday can be found here.
Parade tip: If you plan to take in the NDSF parade, consider watching from the grounds themselves. There are several benches (in the shade!) along the main drag, and you'll bypass the busy post-parade gate rush. The parade arrives at the grounds about 10am and goes the length of the main road, ending at the State Fair Center on the far north end of the fairgrounds.
Get the lay of the land
Grab a map at the gate and familiarize yourself with it right away—or, better, yet, check out the map online before you go.
Once you're at the fair, a good early stop is the KX Information Center, which is a tan, two-story building just a few hundred feet up the road from the main fair entrance on the east side of the Commercial 1 building. Here you'll find a table with daily schedules, coupons, and other information about food and events. It's staffed with volunteers (many repeat helpers, so they're very knowledgeable), and kids might get a kick out of meeting some of the local TV personalities who broadcast live from this location daily at 12 noon, 6pm and 10pm.
Tip: If you're standing outside the information center as the newscasts wrap up each night, you might be able to catch one of the free T-shirts the news crew tosses out.
Find family necessities
Walking around outside in late July can get HOT, and the kids (and mom and dad!) will definitely need a break at some point. When you're ready to cool off, head to one of the air conditioned buildings on the grounds for a breather. The State Fair Center is the largest (all Commercial buildings are also air conditioned), and also houses 4-H exhibits and other contests to browse. It's quiet, and a good place for a bit of a brain break.
If you need to nurse a baby, change a diaper, or find a less busy public bathroom, head to the Kids Clubhouse near the animal barns. There's an indoor play area, bathrooms, and a quiet place to tend to a baby. The Bunny Barn next door is another favorite stop for small kids, too—who knew there were so many varieties of cute bunnies?!
Plan your entertainment
A great thing about the NDSF is the abundance of free entertainment. While daily schedules vary, there are some freebies available each day. A few of our family's favorites:
Daryl's Racing Pigs—Audience members vote for the pig they think will win the hilarious race around a small track and have a chance to win prizes (located near the Expo Barn).
North Dakota Game and Fish “Pathways to Fishing” experience—Near the State Fair Center, kids can cast a line into a pond and, if they're lucky, pull out a fish.
Giant Sandbox—Just off the Kiddie Carnival Rides area, a good place for little tykes to crawl around and play for a bit. Bonus: there's shade here!
Animal barns and shows—For “city kids” like mine, close-up views of pigs, sheep, cows, and horses is pretty thrilling. Wander through the barns, strike up a few conversations with the families who are at the fair to show them, and take in some of the competitions in the barns and nearby arena.
Find fantastic fair food
There's plenty of delicious fair food to be had (check out the vendor list here); with kids, I always find it's a good idea to bring an arsenal of their favorite snacks and plenty of water, but who can say no to at least a little fair food? Here are a few of our family's favorites:
Tubby's Burger—You've never had a burger until you've had a Tubby's Burger. The juiciest, most flavorful patties anywhere! The “Burgers & Fries” red stand is (appropriately) right by the Beef Barn.
First Lutheran Pies—Homemade, freshly baked pies are their specialty: apple, rhubarb, sour cream and raisin, peach...so many delicious varieties to choose from! They serve food, too, and have a covered seating area attached. Located in the food court.
Fry Bread Tacos—The line is always long here (a good sign), and the fry bread tacos are worth the wait. Located in the food court.
Mini Cookies—Grab a bag of freshly baked mini chocolate chip cookies for the kids(you may need a bag for yourself, too). Located in the food court.
Chicken strips + Pineapple Whip—The red and white “Coke stand” operated by Top Concessions is right next to the KX Information Center and serves up fresh cut fries, chicken strips and burgers popular with the kids. Great shakes and Pineapple Whips, too.
Make a family safety plan
An important thing for our family at a big event like the fair is having a plan in case we get separated. Our meet-up place is the KX Information Center (it's centrally located, and they have the ability to easily contact fair officials and law enforcement). This is a good place for lost and found, too; when I was a kid, my little brother dropped his beloved “blankie bunny” somewhere along the midway. Lo and behold, a few hours later, it turned up there.
The Sheriff's department and community ambulance have a presence onsite as well; both have headquarters near Gate E on the southwest corner of the fairgrounds. If you're in need of any first aid, this is the place you'll want to find.
Relax and have fun
As with any experience, the fair is what you make of it, and this mom's #1 tip for families is to roll with the punches. Kids don't want to do carnival rides? Check out the free stages instead. Afternoon rain showers dampening your plans? Head to one of the many indoor setups. There are more than enough options for “Plan B” to turn out even better than “Plan A” at the fair, so do what you can to prepare, then be flexible and find your own perfect fun.