Nothing Compares to Iowa State Fair Thrills
August 8-18, 2019 Des Moines, Iowa
I enjoy fairs of all sorts and sizes: craft, pottery, art and state and county fairs. Wherever there is a group of like-minded people happily gathered showcasing their talents, I’m delighted to join.
I’ve attended the internationally acclaimed Iowa State Fair twice. In 2016, I was mostly a spectator. I applauded a friend as her family was honored with a Century Farm Award presented in the Pioneer Livestock Pavilion.
I then joined her at a friend’s nationally known “Thank a Farmer” magic show in the Paul R. Knapp Animal Learning Center. I spent most of the afternoon watching talented Iowa youth at the Bill Riley Talent Search, including the daughter of a fellow Iowa State graduate I hadn’t seen in 30 years. We re-connected between performances and applause.
Iowa State Fair
The Iowa State Fair is the single largest event in the state of Iowa and one of the oldest and largest agricultural and industrial expositions in the country. It attracts more than a million people from all over the world each year. Iowa’s Fair is also known as “America’s classic state fair” because the event features all of the traditional activities associated with state fairs in a park-like, 450-acre setting (the Fair’s home since 1886). The grounds and the adjoining 160 acres of campgrounds are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
On Saturday, August 12, 2017, I was included in the 120,833 people at the Fair. This time I walked nearly every inch of the fairgrounds, enjoying the sights, sounds and aromas of this great annual event. Both visits were distinct, but each enjoyable. I realized one can experience the Fair quite differently on each visit with a bit of pre-planning. I met some who attend multiple days each year and claim they see and experience it differently with each visit. That’s possible.
17 ways to Enjoy the Iowa State Fair
BEFORE YOU GO
- Define your purpose. Do you want a general overview experience? Are you going to ride the rides on the Midway? Do you want to see the livestock judging competitions? Are the entertainers your priority? Paid or unpaid performers? Will you sample fair foods most of the day? Are you looking forward to viewing the photography and art exhibits? Do you want to see the butter cow exhibit? Do you prefer commercial exhibits? What is it you want to get out of your experience? If you only have one day, visit the excellent Iowa State Fair website and pre-plan your visit. Print the map and schedule. Download the Iowa State Fair Food Finder app. It also includes the daily schedule of events.
- Purchase advance tickets. This will save you both time and money. Check the Iowa State Fair website for special admission pricing (Deals & Discounts) such as Fairgoers aged 60+. Until a couple of days before the Fair starts, one can even print tickets at home with no additional fee. Otherwise advance tickets are available in various grocery stores in Iowa.
- Pack accordingly. Bags are subject to inspection. Bring sunscreen, a camera and cash. While some vendors accept credit and debit cards, there is a preference for cash. A change of clothing may be necessary for small children. There are spray fountains to both cool and entertain kids. After the playground, hand wipes may be necessary. Restrooms and water fountains are readily available and well-marked. You may re-fill water bottles at fountains.
- Wear comfortable clothing and shoes. This Fair has livestock. If you’re going to walk in the barns, closed toe shoes are best. Parking can be a distance from the entrance. Be prepared to walk, though there are courtesy golf cart shuttle rides available. The parking lots are not paved. Stroller rides can be bumpy.
- Preach patience. If you’re attending on the weekend, be prepared for large crowds. Though this is an extremely well-run operation, there is a lot of traffic and it can take a bit to get parked. [Remember where you parked.] The grounds, shows and events can get quite crowded. Keep in mind everyone wants to have an enjoyable Fair experience. Be patient. If there’s a show or event you must see, arrive early to get a seat.
AT THE FAIR
- Arrive early. Parking is $10 per vehicle. The grounds open at 7am. If you’d like to see the Fairgrounds without the crowds, arrive early. Sunrise at the Fair is spectacular. Most buildings do not open until 9:00 am.
- Paul R. Knapp Animal Learning Center. This is an ideal location for young children to learn about farm animals. The building is near the North gate and has baby chickens, pigs, etc. along with educational stations where prizes are awarded for answering questions. This is a great place to see animals, if children do not have the energy to make it to the actual barns on the Fairgrounds.
- Variety. Butter sculpting. Yoga on the hill. Dutch oven cooking seminar. Grape stomping. Backgammon tournament. Egg rolling contest. Sheep shearing contest. The list of things to see and participate in is endless. It can be overwhelming. Pre-planning helps, as does setting realistic expectations of what be accomplished on one visit.
- Accessible. ADA/Accessible parking is available, primarily in the North lot. Scooters and wheelchair rentals are also available. Keep in mind most of the parking areas are unpaved. Trams with marked stops are available once inside the grounds as are golf carts for mini-shuttle service from the parking lots to the gates. Check the Iowa State Fair website for additional services.
- Care Stations and ATMs. Need an aspirin or band-aid? Look for a Care Station vending machine at the Fair. Need extra cash? There are at least 30 ATM machines on location.
- Eat & Drink at the Fair. Outside food and beverages are not allowed. Download the Iowa State Food Finder app for a list of foods by vendor and location, including healthy foods. Beverages cups, once purchased, are re-fillable at most vendor locations for a minimal fee.
- From Above. Sky gliders give an overview of the fairgrounds from above. The ride is slow and easy, allowing you plenty of time to see and to take photos. There are two: east and west. Round trip is ideal.
- Keep it Clean. Hand sanitizer is plentiful throughout all of the animal barn areas and in all restrooms. Use it. Stop the spread of any potential disease.
- Talk to Them. The youth who’ve raised and are showing the animals in the barns are eager to talk about the experience. Approach them. Take an interest in their project and ask questions. Some of the most memorable conversations I had at the 2017 Fair were with a state FFA officer and an Iowa Pork Producers summer intern. These students are impressive representatives of their organizations.
- Check the weather. Do you need sunscreen or an umbrella? Evening Grandstand shows run late. Sometimes a light jacket or sweatshirt is necessary. Remember, to take breaks and drink plenty of water.
- Share. There are endless photographic moments at the Iowa State Fair. Check for hashtags and share on social media. Popular 2017 hashtags were #ISF2017 and #IowaStateFairThrills.
- Plan to Participate. Throughout the Iowa State Fair, you may find ways you can participate in future Fairs. Whatever your interest or hobby, find a way to work on a project and display or show at the Fair. Maybe you can’t raise a cow or pig in your neighborhood, but perhaps you can bake a Bundt cake, submit a photograph or raise a prize-winning rose or pumpkin. Be a part of one of the greatest Fairs around. Participate.
5 Favorites at 2017 Iowa State Fair: August 12th
- Fiddle and guitar music in Pioneer Hall
- West round-trip Sky glider ride
- Walking through the barns early in the morning and watching youth care for their animals
- Horticulture gardens filled with bright, aromatic blooms
- Courtesy of fair goers, workers and volunteers
The 2019 Iowa State Fair is August 8-18, 2019 in Des Moines, Iowa. Mark your calendar. Find your 5 Favorite things to do at the 2019 Iowa State Fair.
Linda Leier Thomason is a retired CEO who now writes freelance business and travel stories along with feature articles. She’s represented the North Dakota Pork Producers as the 1979 Pork Queen and has attended countless county and state fairs promoting the pork industry. Her work experiences include a Fortune 500 corporation, federal government and small business. She is a dual graduate of Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa.
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©Copyright. August 2017. Linda Leier Thomason