Something old, something new

State Fair brings back the classics while adding dinosaurs, Route 66 and more

click to enlarge Something old, something new
PHOTO BY LEE MILNER
Classic Route 66 neon signs have been recently erected at the Route 66 Experience area near Gate 2 at the fair.

Life-size animatronic dinosaurs, a selfie gallery and classic Route 66 neon signs are a few of the new attractions at this year's Illinois State Fair.

They will join old favorites during the Aug. 11-21 run of the fair and Grandstand acts that include Demi Lovato (Aug. 13), Brooks & Dunn (Aug. 14), Willie Nelson and Family (Aug. 16), Jon Pardi (Aug. 18) and Trevor Noah (Aug. 19). There are plenty of free entertainment stages, and of course, fair food and amusement rides.

"We have a lot of new things this year at the fair," fair spokeswoman Krista Lisser said. "We also have the things that people have come to see for generations: the Sale of Champions, the 4-H competitions, the animals in the barns ... the Butter Cow. This is an agricultural fair."

Dino Don's Giant Dinosaurs bills itself as the "largest zoo exhibition of dinosaurs ever presented" and will be in the fair's Happy Hollow area.

The exhibit was created by Dino Don Inc., the world's leading supplier of robotic dinosaurs to zoos and museums worldwide. The company's founder, Don Lessum, was the dinosaur adviser to Steven Spielberg's Jurassic Park and has written 40 books on dinosaurs.

Lessum and his wife, Valerie Jones, struck a $500,000 deal with Mark Cuban on the television series "Shark Tank" in 2021, with Cuban gaining a 25% stake in the company as part of a planned expansion of the business.

The outdoor exhibit at the fair features more than 20 dinosaurs that make noises, breathe and move. It includes a 35-foot-high brachiosaur and a 40-foot-long Tyrannosaurus rex battling a triceratops the size of a mail truck.

Admission to the exhibit is $8 for children and adults alike.

"It's well worth it," Lisser said. "It really walks you through the history of dinosaurs. My husband's excited to go to it. He's a huge Jurassic Park fan."

Also new this year is a "selfie gallery" inside the Exposition Building that's designed for teenagers, influencers and Instagrammers, Lisser said.

"There are several different backgrounds and backdrops and places that you can be to have the perfect selfie at the Illinois State Fair," she said.

The Illinois Chopped Challenge will be back inside the Expo Building after a respite of a few years. Local celebrities will be given ingredients and face off to see who can come up with the best dish. The challenge is scheduled at 5 p.m. Aug. 12, 14-17 and 20.

And fans of the "mother road" can see classic neon signs recently erected at the Route 66 Experience area near Gate 2 at the fair.

The fair's iconic Giant Slide will sport a new "mega Route 66 shield and banners highlighting its significance as the only state fairground located directly on the historic road," according to a news release from the Greater Springfield Chamber of Commerce.

The slide, in operation at the fair since 1968, now is owned by Doug Knight of Knight's Action Park. The chamber says Knight plans to operate the slide seasonally on Saturdays from May through October for area residents and visitors who want an opportunity to "Slide Down 66."

The fair's Village of Culture this year will offer the new Small Plates, Big Tastes promotion in which sample-size items will be $3.

There will be a "Feeding Frenzy" every day from 2 to 5 p.m., when there will be discounted happy-hour pricing at participating food vendors throughout the fair. An updated list of participating vendors is available on the fair's website, illinoisstatefair.info.

The theme of this year's fair is Grow With Us, which Gov. JB Pritzker writes in the fair's media guide is appropriate because the fair "brings together residents and visitors alike to celebrate all that Illinois contributes to the story of our nation."

The governor's welcome message says: "Illinois is the greatest state in the nation. From the nation's heartland, we are among the nation's leaders in transportation, agricultural innovation, engineering and architecture. Our people invented everything from the skyscraper to the cellphone to the steel plow. ... Throughout it all, agriculture has served as our largest industry and the backbone of our state. This year's theme recognizes our state's ag leadership."

The COVID-19 pandemic isn't over, but the COVID mitigations in place during last year's state fair, including mandatory testing requirements for the standing-room-only area at Grandstand concerts and the unenforced indoor masking requirement – are gone for this year's fair.

There are signs that attendance at this year's fair could meet or exceed last year's estimated 472,390 visitors, Lisser said.

The 2021 fair, held after the 2020 fair was canceled because of COVID-19, was the second-highest-attended fair since 2014, surpassed only by the 2019 fair's 508,900.

Lisser noted that entries for junior and open entries to livestock shows during the fair are up more than 1,300 from last year's 10,313 entries.

"There's a good sign right there of how our attendance might go," she said. "A lot of the people who attend the fair are exhibitors and their families."

Inflation and gasoline prices could have "a little impact" on visitors driving from outside the region to the fair, Lisser said.

"We've often said that what really dictates attendance is weather and the concerts," she said. "It really does all depend on the weather. People don't want to be outside if it's 110, and they don't want to be outside in pouring rain.

"It's hard to really guess what your attendance numbers are going to be, but based off things on social media and just the excitement that we've heard from people in the community and surrounding areas, it doesn't sound like anybody is deterred by COVID or inflation at this point on coming to the fair."

Admission prices aren't changing this year. General admission is $5 for those 13 through 59 every day except for Fridays and Saturdays, when admission for ages 13-59 is $10.

Admission for children 12 and younger is always free. Admission for seniors 60 and older is $3, except for Aug. 15, when seniors (as well as scouts with proper identification or in uniform) get in free.

Veterans, with proper identification, as well as their families, get in free on Aug. 14. And first responders and health care workers with proper ID get in free Aug. 19.

The free admission days do not include free parking.

Dean Olsen is a senior staff writer for Illinois Times. He can be reached at dolsen@illinoistimes.com, 217-679-7810 or twitter.com/DeanOlsenIT.

About The Author

Dean Olsen

Dean Olsen is a senior staff writer for Illinois Times. He can be reached at:
dolsen@illinoistimes.com, 217-679-7810 or @DeanOlsenIT.

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