Here in Puyallup we know it’s really fall when the sky is lit with twinkling lights from carnival rides, the air is filled with the smell of onion burgers and the streets are packed with circling cars. Yes, locals do have to put up with some headaches during the 21-days-long spectacle that is the Washington State Fair, but I don’t know anyone who would skip it.
Here are my family’s best tips for making the most of your fair trip this year!
1. Buy tickets in advance (and the Fair begins early this year)
The Washington State Fair runs Friday, Sept. 2–Sunday, Sept. 25, 2016, at the fairgrounds in Puyallup. The Labor Day Weekend opening is new this year. Along with the extended run, The Fair will now be closed on Tuesdays, the lowest attendance day, historically. Reminder: The name has changed officially, but everyone around here still calls it “The Puyallup" or just, “The Fair.”
2. Go on Opening Day or Rodeo Parade Day for free admission and fun
The Fair is free the morning it opens (Friday, Sept. 2) from 10 a.m.–noon. You’re asked to bring a canned-food donation as part of Komo’s First Day at the Fair Food Drive.
You can also get in free on Friday, September 9, after the Rodeo Parade and Cattle Drive.
The very best way to enjoy this first is to watch the cattle drive, a free parade at 10 a.m. right through downtown Puyallup. You’ll get to see draft horses, royalty, real cowboys and cattle walking right down the street. Then head to the fairgrounds for free entry from 10 a.m.–noon. You are asked to bring a donation of school supplies.
You can follow the parade into the fairgrounds for your free entry. There is even a bargain breakfast in Pioneer Park beforehand (also check out the new spray park). If it works with your schedule, there is no better way to do the fair!
3. Take advantage of other deals
- Labor Day deals: If you aren’t heading out of town, and you don’t mind some company, consider going on Labor Day, Sept. 5, when you can enjoy $2 rides until 2 p.m.: Purchase Funtastic ride tickets by 2 p.m. for use throughout the entire day (excludes Extreme Scream)
• Labor Day is also BECU Free Kids’ Day – free gate admission all day for kids ages 18 and under-Note kids are free all Labor Day weekend; no coupon is required
• Military Appreciation Day: – Free admission all day for military personnel and dependents
- Buy $5 rodeo tickets for the Friday, Sept. 9 matinee rodeo (at 1 p.m.).
- Members of the military and their families can go for free Sept. 5, 14 or 19.
- Admission deals for everyone else are available as part of various packages, most requiring advance purchase. The Value Pack, available at Fred Meyer until Sept. 19, is a good deal.
- You can check out all available deals at thefair.com/deals
4. Dinosaurs, superheroes and more new attractions
The Fair offers literally tons to do. There are mini-rides for kids in Sillyville and plenty for thrill seekers on the big rides at the Midway. You’ll also find live entertainment, rodeos, vendors, halls full of hobbies and educational booths, agricultural displays, and much more.
New this year is Superhero Headquarters. It’s a free exhibit with a rotating schedule of superheroes kids can meet. You’ll want to plan ahead if your kids have a favorite. We have the appearance schedule below; you’ll be able to catch up with them near SillyVille.
Sept. 2–5: Captain America and Thor
Sept. 7–12: Batman and Wonder Woman
Sept. 14–19: Superman and Supergirl
Sept. 21–25: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
Also new this year is the Discover Dinosaurs exhibit: The fair site describes this one as, “a walk-through exhibit designed to bring you back in time to a landscape where dinosaurs lived. See dinosaurs of prehistoric times, including a T-Rex, triceratops, iguanodon, apatosaurus and stegosaurus. This one is a paid attraction, and admission is $6 per person. We have found past paid exhibits to be underwhelming, but this will likely seem worth it to a big dinosaur fan. If you’d like to stick to free attractions, there are still plenty of those!
5. Hidden freebies at the 2016 fair
In addition to these new features, there are dozens and dozens of returning fair attraction that won’t cost a dime. If you want the full scoop, check out this list of 100 free things to do at the Fair.
- If you have young children, be sure to head to The Fair Farm where they can meet and pet all kinds of animal friends. From Sept. 7–12, you can also go to check out the animals of the world exhibit.
- Our boys also love the free fishing in the Northwest Outdoors exhibit and the free milk samples at the dairy barn.
- Timber Gulch, the Western-themed area, has expanded this year, with free hands-on activities for kids including cow milking and butter churning.
- Also look for free entertainment and cultural experiences on the various fair stages.
- Your little cowboys and cowgirls may want to try their hand at mutton busting — a scaled-down version of bull riding, where kids ages 4–7 and under 60 lbs. ride sheep! It's $12 to ride but free (and totally entertaining) for spectators.
- Sillyville has free face painting. *The Sillyville restroom also has a nursing station. Changing tables are in men’s and women’s restrooms all over, and there are also plentiful handwashing stations.
- The Hobby Hall has lots of great exhibits and a free Lego play area.
- Press a Penny. The Washington State Fair Foundation has introduced a penny press with four different fair designs. It will cost $5 to press a penny, still one of the cheapest souvenirs you’ll find at the Fair! They’re located in the SillyVille Train Station area.
6. Plan carefully for budget busters
- If the big rides are your family’s thing, either go on Labor Day for $2 rides, or go on a day when you can get the Xfinity Dizzy Pass, which is good for unlimited rides. The passes are $35 or $32 if you buy online before Sept. 6; after that they go up $10. These can only be used on certain days, and they don’t come with admission, but if you have kids who love to ride, you will easily get your money’s worth.
- If no one in your family is an adrenaline junkie, it’s much easier to keep a fair trip frugal. We buy around $20 worth of ride tickets, usually enough to let each of our two boys do around three each. We do these first, and we’ve found that it’s easy to leave if you head off with a specific destination: “Let’s go pet the lambs now.”
- Fair food is the other potential budget buster. Pack your own, or eat a Fair-style meal at home (as we do), so you aren’t walking past the booths with empty stomachs. We do splurge for scones.
- Skip the games, which are expensive and practically impossible to win.
7. Consider public transportation to get there
See the Fair's transportation page for all transportation information. Our tips:
- If you want to avoid traffic and parking lines, public transportation is a good choice. Pierce Transit has bus service from Lakewood Towne Center, Tacoma Mall or the South Hill Mall. Riders from as far north as Everett can also take the Sounder Train to the Puyallup Station on Saturday, Sept. 17 or Saturday, Sept. 24 with a package (available at the Fair website) that includes your round trip fare and admission. There are also two Sound Transit bus routes available from the Seattle area. For a slightly plusher experience, you can try the new Starline Express bus, which picks up from three King County locations on Saturdays.
- If you want to drive yourself, be prepared for traffic on the weekends and bring cash for parking. Some parents prefer to pay the premium to park in one of the close, official lots. Enterprising locals also sell parking in their lots and driveways for around $10. We suggest you try a school — the money is going to a good cause, and they’ll have PTA volunteers out and about all day.
Hopefully, a few of the secrets I spilled will help you enjoy your fair outing this year!