Family Favorites Editors' Picks

There are statues and historic buildings that beg exploration. And a steady albeit not overwhelming stream of visitors allows quiet moments of watching the world go by. And there is the poem: Longfellow's "Minnehaha." Perhaps it's a bit long to bring along and read to the youngest set, but there is something moving about seeing the place that encouraged such a remarkable work.


Best Family Outing

The Minnesota State Fair

St. Paul

(651) 642-2200

Don't be afraid. Yes, the State Fair can be a daunting excursion with children. But there are ways to control the costs and to make it a day filled with happy memories and only a few blisters.

A decade ago, upon our arrival in Minnesota, my husband and I went to our first State Fair. We had sturdy shoes, spare cash, no children, and an incredibly high tolerance for hubbub and chaos. Ten years and two children later, we know our limitations. We've been to every State Fair since, but we've got it down to a science.

Our friends comment on our stamina and our ability to come back invigorated and ready for more. It's simple, really. Go early, go often, throw out the food rules, and stick, as much as possible, to things that are purely State Fair.

Before you go, make a plan. Begin by purchasing discounted advance-sale tickets at Holiday Station Stores and the Happenings Book, jammed with coupons. A little time spent perusing the coupons can help you develop a strategy for the whats, whens, and wheres of food and fun. There is also a Web site that lists the days activities in advance (see above).


What to bring

Considering the ages of your children, think carefully about what wheeled device you will bring along. Strollers are comfortable, but they tend to do best on smooth walkways. Lifting excited children in and out of them numerous times can be tiresome as well. Jogging strollers can handle the more interesting terrain (e.g., curbs, hoses and cords, around and through the barns) but they aren't always good for napping and often don't have much storage. A wagon may be good, as it can handle much of the terrain easily and hold what you are likely to collect over the course of the day, but it can also encourage unrestrained children to climb in and out a great deal. By all means, though, do bring something for them to wheel around in. As you head back to the car at the end of the day, there is little satisfaction in hauling a hot, sleepy, and sticky child in your arms.

A picnic blanket is a good thing to have along for mealtime and resting. Extra baby wipes can keep grime to a minimum. Water bottles are handy and can be regularly refilled at the plentiful drinking fountains. Keeping everyone hydrated on hot days is essential, and it's preferable to spend the food budget on the more interesting goodies. Make an agreement before you go as to how many drinks will be purchased, and how water will be the main beverage. Make sure you have a camera, extra film, some bandages, sunglasses and visors for everyone, tissues, and a sense of fun.


When to go

Early. Really early. There's a lot to see as farmers prepare livestock for the day and the Fairgrounds make a transformation from sleepy small town to bustling metropolis. Seven a.m. is not too early. It may be difficult to face this reality, but remember that at that hour, especially on weekdays, there is plenty of parking--much of it along the street, and free. Conversely, you won't have a long journey back to the car at the end of the day.

And when the outing starts so early, a full day can mean leaving by 1 p.m., just as the crowds are beginning to feel unmanageable. There is a great deal of satisfaction in driving home contentedly after six or seven very full hours and seeing all the traffic fighting to get into the fair, and hearing how many of the park-and-ride lots are full. If there's a way to take a half-day off work, it's quite reasonable to plan an early fair arrival and departure with a return to the office for the second half of the day (although you might want to shower first!). This early strategy works just fine on weekends as well, and Sunday mornings seem especially joyful at the Fairgrounds.

Besides, the things that you can experience early in the morning are some the things that make it so special. There are light crowds in all of the barns, so it's easy to get a clear view of the champion boar and sow (traditionally one of the most crowded corners of all the animal barns). Watch the cows line up for the milking machine and the cow wash. The poultry barn is especially spectacular in the early morning hours. Don't miss at least some animal judging. If you are organized enough, you might visit some of the animal contestants before their events and choose your favorites. The judges are very informative, and they'll explain how and why they make their selections.

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