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Washington State Fair Survival Guide: 10 Things You Must Know

With more than a million visitors partaking in 17 days of fanfare, music, circus acts, bucking broncos, 4H animals and gigantic vegetable arrangements, not to mention rides with names like “Kamakaze” and “Vertigo” that will put even the steeliest stomach to the test, the Washington State Fair (previously known as the Puyallup Fair) is an end-of-summer extravaganza of epic proportions. In fact, the annual stats are a bit staggering: 160+ different food vendors, 1.2+ million scones (made famous by the Fair) served, 16,000+ faces painted, and 400+ gallons of instant hand sanitizer used.

Even if you love the Fair, facing crowds like these with your little ones in tow might make you rethink your sanity. Don’t worry! You’re not nuts. The Fair is made for families. Whether you’ve got toddlers or tweens (even if both seem to have a knack for getting lost or picking the most public place possible for a major meltdown), our Survival Guide will ensure that not only is your entire party present and accounted for upon departure, but that your kids will be talking about this great family adventure all autumn long!

Having fun - Credit Philip Palermo

Survival Tip #1:  Plan Your “Must Do’s” Before You Leave
No really. Do it. We all want to fly by the seat of our pants, but you waived bye-bye to spontaneous Fair adventures the day your kiddo became too heavy for the Ergo. Not only is there a ton of new stuff this year that even seasoned Fair-goers will want to explore, but planning ahead will save your sanity and give you the chance to prioritize.

Bonus Tip: If you pre-purchase your tickets online or at participating Fred Meyer, Walgreens or Safeway stores, you get to jump to the front of the line when you arrive.

Double Bonus Tip: Print off a map (or this one) of the fairgrounds and circle your “must do or see” items. Then, hit these things first, and that way you can save some heartache in case folks poop out early (or eat too many deep fried Oreos).

Survival Tip #2: Keep Your Group Small(-ish) 
This is not the event to attend with your entire PEPS group or to allow your kiddo to fill the minivan with 5 of his or her closest pals. The death blow to any fun Fair trip is trying to rendezvous with the “sorry-we’re-an-hour-late” friend or attempting to corral so many people (i.e. different needs, different schedules and different “must do” activities) that you lose any hope of having a trip where most of your group gets to do what they want. Also, keeping track of too many kiddos in a sea of sugar-spiked youths is a recipe for complete meltdown (unless you want to put those cute baby leashes on all your kids’ friends, of course).

Bonus Tip: If you are meeting up with friends, keep it casual (“If we see you there, great!”) or plan your meet-up for only part of the time (“Let’s meet at the petting zoo at 10:00 am and split up after lunch,”) so that you can guarantee you hit your family’s “must do” list after you’ve parted ways.

Pretty in purple - Credit Philip Palermo

Survival Tip #3: Beat (some of) the Crowds on Weekdays
Ok. The fair is going to be crowded. Always. Best to jump into the happy mayhem with both feet and a smile (and your hands firmly ahold of your kiddos) and you’ll be fine. Weekday mornings are your best bet to beat the crowds, especially in the later part of the Fair’s run. But, if you can’t sneak away from work during the week, then go on a weekend when the weather looks a little crummy. We’re tough Northwest parents, right? Pack the raincoat and umbrella and plan for lots of time in the awesome indoor exhibits (and bolt directly for the rides during sun breaks).  

Bonus Tip: Puyallup School District Fair Day is Wednesday, September 11, where virtually every school-aged child in the district will be in attendance. Skip the crowds and the Fair this day.

Girl on Giant Swing

Survival Tip #4: Pack these Six “Must Bring” Items:

  • Nutritious Snacks – You can buy amazing junk food (and gourmet goodies) at the Fair, so bring stuff you can’t easily find like fresh fruit, sandwiches, nuts and granola bars to keep the troops happy between meals. Or, save your duckets for a sweet treat at the new SillyVille Soda Shoppe and pack your own lunch (this goes double if you have kids with allergies or are picky eaters). A soft-sided cooler will fit easily underneath the stroller and an icepack will keep your ham and cheese cool in the summer sunshine
  • Sturdy Water Bottles & Sunscreen – September can be our nicest month so remember to keep everyone cool and hydrated. Bring a water bottle for everyone and refill at fountains all over the Fair. Sunscreen and hats will keep little noses from getting clown-like.
  • Good Shoes – This is not the place to break in those new sparkly sandals (yours, or your kiddos). Close-toed shoes are your best bet, especially if you are hitting the petting zoo, riding the rides or if your little ones will be tempted to try Mutton Bustin. No amount of wet wipes will make you feel clean if you accidentally wear your flip flops into a pile of goat pellets.
  • Cell Phones – Charge ‘em up at one of the four T-Mobile charging stations for free and ensure that you can ring the rest your family when you had to take yet another potty stop and the rest of your crew wandered to an exhibit. Insider Tips: If you have mid-range walkie-talkies, this is the perfect place to bring them. And if you’re worried about finding your folks in the ocean of other Fair-goers, brave the potential Awkward Family Photo and dress your family in matching fluorescent shirts and hats.
  • Cash – Not all vendors accept plastic, so although there are at least six cash machines on the Fair grounds, you’ll save yourself some time in line by bringing cash for food and merchandise. Things are a bit pricey at the Fair, so budget at least $10 per person per meal.
  • Lightweight Hoodie or Jacket – Weather can be fickle in September, so even if yesterday was roasting, today might be cool. You’ll definitely want to be able to layer up, especially if you’re staying for any of the evening entertainment. Tie them around your kids’ waists so that you don’t end up carrying four coats all through the Fair.

Food at the Fair

Survival Tip #5: Leave the “Stuff” Behind
The Fair is a big place. You don’t want to be hauling a bunch of unneeded items around for a whole day, and you won’t want to walk back to the car to drop things off. Trust us. Stick to the basics (above). Bring only what you really need and you’ll be a much happier camper, and you’ll have leftover space in the stroller to bring home some prize-winning jams and jellies that you find in the Home Arts hall.

Bonus Tip: Rent a Locker. If you tried to pare down but still find yourself with too many bags and not enough arms to carry it all, especially if you win that enormous pink panda at the ring toss, get a locker ($6) at the Gold Gate and take a load off.

Double Bonus Tip: If you left the stroller at home, but decide you actually do need it, don’t fret. Strollers ($9) and wagons ($13), as well as wheel chairs ($15) and electric carts ($50) are available for rent at the Gold, Blue and Green gates. Cash and ID required.

Don’t bring:

  • Toys/Portable Video Games – The Fair is like one big enormous kid stimulator. Your little ones won’t need toys or their DSi, and if you get desperate, you can always improvise with plastic cups, car keys or mom’s sunglasses. Leave the toys in the car for the ride home.
  • Picnic blankets – Even if you brought a picnic, there’s not a lot of grassy areas to plop down a blanket. Best to find one of the many picnic tables for your lunch. And if this was for a baby’s tummy time, perhaps just use your sweatshirt to double as an acceptable layer between the ground germs and your sweetie.
  • Purse – Consider transferring your bare-bone diaper bag and purse necessities, along with the snacks and extra clothes your crew needs for the day, into a large, easy to carry and comfortable backpack. All the zippered compartments will keep things separate (and safe!), and after a long day of walking and wandering, your back and shoulders will thank you. Insider Tip: Diapers are not sold anywhere on the fairgrounds, so bring a few more than you think you’ll need, and extra wipes are great for getting cotton candy off sticky hands and faces.
  • The Big Camera – Leave the bulky camera behind. (One less thing to worry about getting lost). You’ve already got your smartphone. Just make sure to open up a good chunk pf space in your phone’s photo album, so that you can Instagram your kids gawking as they watch the giant pumpkin carver in action.
  • Umbrellas – They’re super bulky. If it does start to rain, head to the animal barns or Hobby Hall to get out of the drizzle.

At the Fair

Survival Tip #6: Leave Early for (a little) Less Traffic 
You left the house at 9:00 am on a Saturday thinking the 36-mile drive from Seattle (plus parking) would take maybe an hour. Two hours in, and your entire car full of previously-perky family members are cranky, hungry and need to pee. And if you were to indeed come across one of those free parking spots you were sure you’d find along the road, you’d be pretty sure the next thing you’d see was a unicorn. The lesson? Embrace the fact that your 5-year-old has an internal alarm clock that goes off at dawn, and leave early. Really early. (The Fair opens at 10:00 am Monday – Thursday, and 9:00 am Friday – Sunday.) The drive from Seattle can take 40 minutes with no traffic; 2+ hours with traffic. Plan for the worst and hope for the best! And know that the Fair really will be worth it.

Bonus Tip: Check out driving directions for best routes to the Fair from your city. Traffic exiting off Highway 167 into the fairgrounds can be super backed up, especially mid-morning on busy weekends, so bring the travel games to entertain the troops. If traffic is congested, don’t exit from Highway 167 onto Highway 512 W. Stay on Hwy 167 till the end (stay left). Then, turn Left at Meridian Street; Right at River Road; Left at 4th Street NW; then follow signs to Fair Parking Lots.

Traffic

Survival Tip #7: Pay for Parking or… Park Like A Local
Fair pros know to budget time and money for parking in one of the color-coded fairground lots. If you arrive early and want to park cheaply, you may catch some of the Fair neighbors churches and businesses that offer easy, close (and cheap!) parking on their lawns.

Bonus Tip: Frequent Fair-goers swear by the donation-only shuttle service operated by the Kiwanis and Elks. Park for free and have the shuttles take you directly to the Green Gate at the nearby South Hill Mall near Macy’s (Fridays – Sundays) or at the Best Western or Holiday Inn Hotels in Puyallup (available daily).

no parking

Survival Tip #8: Make Time for Break Time
The Fair is raucous, colorful, exciting and super-fun, but sometimes even the most energetic of little people need a quiet moment to recharge (and sometimes us big people need to sit for a moment in a space that isn’t full of whirly gigs and jumpy castles). Check out the map and find a few hidden spots where you can escape to for a little serenity or at least a spot where you won’t have to shout to hear each other.

  • SillyVille: Although perhaps not the most serene of locations, there is a LOT of seating here and great people watching. Head here for a mid-day snack or water break. Nearby are the Mutton Bustin stands, which are packed during shows, but relatively empty in between races. Located in the southwest corner of fairgrounds. (Bathrooms also located here).
  • The Pavilion: On the main floor, you’ll find the education stage, so you can head here if you want to take a load off while learning something new. (It’s like the live version of PBS!). Upstairs, is the Home Arts, Arts and Photography area. The seating here is ample and it’s probably the quietest, calmest place to hang out in the entire Fair. Bonus, there’s AC here, so if it’s a real scorcher, cool off inside. Located in the northeast corner of the fairgrounds. (Bathrooms also located here).
  • The Paulhamus Arena: This is where the equestrian demonstrations are held, which only take place a few times a day. The ample bandstand style seating is rarely full, so head here if you need some wide-open indoor space to rest your eyes and feet. Located in the southern part of fairgrounds. (Closest bathrooms are directly across from the Arena at the Fair Farm).
  • The Sleep Country Showplex: If you really need a rest, go try out a feather-topped mattress or two (or ten) at the Sleep Country Showplex. There may be a bunch of other folks all around, but it’s the only spot at the Fair where you can get horizontal without anyone batting an eye. Located in the very middle of the fairgrounds. (Bathrooms located here at the North entrance).

rest area at Fair

Survival Tip #9: Keep Track of Must-Know Locations

  • Bathrooms - There are more than a dozen restrooms located throughout the fairgrounds. If in doubt, go towards the perimeter, as there are bathrooms located at each of the entrances/exits.
  • Diaper changing areasThe Fair has leapt into the 21st century! Both the mens’ and womens’ restrooms have baby changing tables! If that’s not worth a “Yee haw,” we don’t know what is! Find the changing stations at the bathrooms near the Blue, Gold, Green and Red Gates and at the north and south ends of SillyVille and in the Expo Hall
  • Nursing RoomsAgain, perhaps this shouldn’t be so impressive seeing that the Fair is such a family affair, but a comfortable and private nursing room is a wonderful addition for the nursing mom who needs a moment of peace and quiet. Find it in the Red Gate restroom near the restaurant building.
  • First Aid Station Take a tumble on the Tracker Pull? No problem. The First Aid / State Patrol station will fix up any boo boos. Find it on the east side of the fairgrounds, in between the Park Bistro/Wine Garden and the Pavilion. EMTs are also on hand, just in case.
  • Lost and Found DeskLost and Found items can be claimed (or deposited) at the reception desk of the Administration Building. Find it near the Gold Gate in the northeast corner of the fair, next to the fountain. Their phone number is 253-845-1771, just in case you realize you left something behind when you get home.
  • Lost Persons Rendezvous PointIf you get disconnected from your pack, head directly to the supervised “Lost Persons Area,” in the west part of the park, right next to the Rainier Rush roller coaster (you can’t miss it). If you’re concerned about your kiddos getting lost, take them to any of the information booths to get fitted for a wristband on which you can write their name and contact information. Police will look for these bracelets and it will speed up reconnecting you with your sweetie. Take note that uniformed police officers from around the state (State Patrol, Sheriff’s Officers, and City Police offers) are on duty full-time at the Fair and are always ready and willing to help parents or kids in need.

Survival Tip #10: If All Else Fails, Pretend Like It’s Disneyland!
Like we said, the Fair can be a bit overwhelming. It’s loud, a bit smelly (hey, they’re pigs and cows… it’s gonna smell like a barn), and there will be sensory overload at times. But it’s also a place full of magic and wonder and, most of all, fun. If you find yourself being a little grumpy about the price of those scones, or the fact that your kid REALLY wants to come home with that goldfish in the plastic bag, go get yourself a candied apple and remember that the Fair only comes once a year. It can be one of the happiest places on Earth… if you let it!

Big Slide at Fair

Washington State Fair Events Center
110 9th Avenue SW
Puyallup, Wa 98371
253-845-1771 or 253-841-5045
Online: thefair.com (click here for specific driving directions)

Open: September 6-22, 2013
10:00 am – 10:00 pm (Mondays – Thursdays)
10:00 am – 11:00 pm (Fridays)
9:00 am – 11:00 pm (Saturdays)
9:00 am – 10:00 pm (Sundays)

Cost: $9 (Ages 6-18), $12.50 (Adults), $9 (Seniors). Kids 5 and under are free! Buy tickets online and at participating Walgreens, Safeway and Fred Meyer stores.

Have a survival tip for making it through the Washington State Fair with little ones in tow? Share it with us below! We can’t wait to hear your creative ideas!

–Katie Gruver

Photo credits to: Washington State Fair, Evil ErinBrian Negus, Logan Smith, Kristin Nador, Michael Newton, Bradley J, F. Delventhal and Philip Palermo

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