Some people have great memories of childhood trips to the fair, of rides and cotton candy, petting zoos and Big Tex saying, "Howdy." If you're one of those people, call your parents and thank them. Taking kids -- particularly toddlers and preschoolers -- to the fair can be tough. If time has traveled to the point where it's your turn to take the kids to the State Fair of Texas, here is a cheat sheet to make the trip go more smoothly.
Bonus: All the attractions we list here are free with fair admission.
Pee Wee Stampede and Rodeo
Kids 4-8 ride on stick horses -- and even stick bulls -- during mock rodeo events. Gear is provided to add to the fun. At the Ranch Arena.
Little Hands on the Farm
One of the best parts of this mini pretend-farm attraction is that there's a little snack for kids at the end (the attraction's free for fair ticketholders; each kid is given pretend money to buy a snack). Along the way, they can put items in their baskets, plant seeds, ride on tiny toy tractors and learn about farming. It's at Admiral Nimitz Circle and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.
See the animals
The Children's Health Barnyard petting zoo is a one-stop spot to see a whole bunch of kinds of animals in one place. The perennial favorites are the baby goats, but there are always more exotic creatures to look for, such as giraffes and zebras. It's at Nimitz Drive and MLK Jr. Boulevard. Another option is to go to the livestock shows and barns to see the animals and the people who raised them. Want to learn more about the livestock? There are Livestock 101 presentations and livestock guided tours in Ag-Power Plaza.
If you're willing to stretch the boundaries of bedtime a little, there's plenty of fun to be had at the fair in the evening. The Starlight Parade, held at 7:15 every night, is a merry little procession of illuminated floats, costumed characters and more. Head for the Esplanade for the nightly Mattress Firm Illumination Sensation light show at 8 p.m., featuring fireworks, as well as dancers and acrobats doing their thing with pop music playing in the background.
Get heckled by the Buford Buzzard puppet and check out other family-friendly acts in this area. You'll also find arts and crafts, face painting and games. Find it on First Avenue, west of Leonhardt Lagoon.
Tips for your fair trip
- Plan it out: Do yourself a huge favor and print out the State Fair map ahead of time. With dozens of locations marked, plus numerous symbols for restrooms and such, it can be difficult to quickly find specific places within the fairgrounds. You'll soon discover that kids' activities are spread out over a lot of ground. Figure out which areas you want to go to and plot your path. Mark it on your printed map at your kitchen table while the kids sleep, rather than trying to navigate the map at the fair, with hundreds of people around you and a little one tugging at your shorts.
- Keep track of your kid: Do you have a runner? The first thing you need to do upon arriving at Fair Park is to take your kids to the nearest information stand and tag them with a Safe Kids ID Band that will help them if they get lost. The bracelet is designed to keep kids' names and info secure while giving parents two ways to "claim" their child should they become separated.
- The restroom situation: For those still in the diaper years, changing tables are located in every women's restroom and most men's restrooms. If you need some privacy to feed or change your infant, there is an air-conditioned Baby Care station near the intersection of Nimitz Drive and MLK Jr. Boulevard, across from the Children's Health Barnyard.
- Limit the length of your visit: The fair has a lot going on -- music, carnival sounds, crowds, games -- so it can be a sensory overload for young kids. Plan to stay only about two to four hours if you have preschoolers or toddlers, unless you want to deal with a terrible-twos-style outburst in public.
- Take lots of snacks and drinks: The fair (awesomely) allows guests to take in coolers and food, so you can take munchies that will satisfy picky eaters. The best part: saving money on expensive fair foods. There are, of course, rules as to what you need to leave at home.
- Follow your plan: There are so many awesome things to see and do at the fair that it's easy to get sidetracked. Do those things on another adults-only trip and do what your parents did: Let the kids have great memories of the fair when they grow up.