Summer is like a highly competitive sport in Milwaukee. The goal of the game is to cram as many festivals and as much outdoor fun as you possibly can into three short months (give or take). It’s fun, but exhausting. I like to think that winter (a.k.a. the season of hibernation) is a necessary break in order for our wild and energetic summer to be possible, but it might be the other way around (likely summer is the necessary break in order to keep us from going insane/moving away during winter).
The festival of all festivals is, arguably, Summerfest, the world’s largest music festival, held on the shore of Lake Michigan for 11 sacred days each June and July. It’s 12 hours a day of live music on 10 stages, with acts covering every genre. I’ve enjoyed Summerfest as a high schooler (road tripping up from Chicago with friends several summers to see the likes of Guster and Ben Folds), a newcomer to the city (busing in from bars, popping over on your lunch break, just wandering with no particular act in mind to hear… these are things locals do) and as a journalist (this is the first summer in six years I’m not shooting videos, meeting bands and running around like a madwoman covering the Big Gig — kind of sad!).
But this year, I decided to experience Summerfest as a parent. There are plenty of folks who I’m sure would not dare to bring their kids near the world’s largest music festival, and I don’t really blame them. But I’m crazy, so even after the friends I invited couldn’t make it, I hit up Summerfest with the kids Friday afternoon (yes, solo). It was a blast.
The logistics (perhaps this is helpful for others thinking of taking little ones to Summerfest):
Timing: Morning is prime time for kids, but, unfortunately, Summerfest doesn’t open till noon. So my plan was to get Corban to nap earlier than usual and arrive mid-afternoon, hopefully when crowds were still smaller. We arrived at 3 p.m., which, on a Friday, was starting to get pretty crowded, but on another weekday probably wouldn’t have been as packed.
Parking: I wasn’t about to pay $20 for parking, so I found a metered spot on Water Street in the Third Ward. It was about a 10-minute walk to the gates, but only cost $3 for two hours. The downside was I had to be back by 5 p.m. sharp, because Milwaukee parking folks don’t mess around. I once watched a meter lady write me a ticket literally the second my meter expired as I was racing to my car.
Tickets: Kids under 3 years old are free (yay!) and I had a free ticket from work (woo hoo!) but normally weekdays before 4 p.m. are $11. Good deal.
Stroller: I opted for the single stroller (City Mini), with Mara (10 months old) in the Ergo, figuring once we got to the grounds Corban (2.5 years old) might want to walk, so I could switch Mara to the stroller. I am so glad I didn’t bring our double stroller. It was difficult enough navigating the crowds with the single stroller. There was also no way Corban would be walking any distance on his own – he stayed safely in the stroller most of the time, and I was perfectly fine keeping Mara snuggled on me (it’s fun to dance with a baby strapped to you!)
Activities: There are quite a few kid-friendly activities. Corban would have spent our entire time there at the splash pad by the mid-gate. There’s also a playground area and a few designated stages with kid shows. They have paddle boats, a skyglider and a (new this year) Ferris wheel. Here is more info on all the kids activities. During the day, I like to just wander up to stages and check out bands I’ve never heard of, so I tried to get the kids on board with that. They’re young enough that they didn’t know any better (for the most part).
We walked right in the gate to the tail end of the Summerfest parade – cute, but massive crowds. After popping by the Johnson Controls World Sounds Stage (one of the few spots under a roof – good to know in case of rain), we headed over to the U.S. Cellular Connection Stage and sat down to listen to a band called Friendly People.
Corban was more interested in people watching (can’t blame him). He was still coming to life after being woken up early from his nap.
Mara might have been the only one in the audience dancing (although you wouldn’t guess from this pic).
Friendly People were near the end of their set, and Corban actually climbed back in the stroller – a definite sign it was time to move on. I consulted my Best of Brew City app and saw that Kohl’s Wild Theater was happening (an animal-themed show), so headed toward the opposite side of the grounds. After passing the splash pad, though, Corban started freaking out and attempting to escape from the stroller, asking to go to the fountain, so I complied.
He stood on the edge of the splash pad for probably 10 minutes just watching the other kids run around while I small talked with another mom.
Finally, he dipped his toes in, and I began to worry I’d never be able to pry him away from the water.
The promise of a “special treat” finally, miraculously got him back into the stroller, and we walked over to the KNE New Music stage (a small stage showcasing mostly local music) where the Land the Big Gig contest 2nd place winner, Doozey, was playing.
(The guy in the yellow is this amazingly ridiculous man whom I see EVERY year dancing his heart out at different shows. I swear, he’s everywhere at Summerfest. It was good to see him still doin’ his thing.)
Doozey was so much fun! I loved their music and they knew how to work the crowd. Corban wasn’t going to forget his promised special treat so easily, though. Sil’s Mini Donuts was nearby, so we split a small order fresh out of the fryer while watching the show. The best.
Eventually, Corban noticed the Ferris wheel behind us and asked to go up in it. Sure, why not?!
I thought he might be scared, but he loved it. We both did, actually.
The views from the top were gorgeous.
Scary selfie, but Corban looks too cute not to share.
After that, our time was up, and I had to race as fast as I could back to the car before the meter expired. Corban wasn’t happy about leaving, and, frankly, neither was I. I debated just feeding the meter, but once we were at the car I was too exhausted to push my luck and head back in. Better to end on a high (literally) note.
Though not for the faint of heart, Summerfest is definitely doable with kids. Earlier in the day is better and going with your spouse or a second pair of hands is preferable, but I would totally go back even alone with the kids. I’m hoping my next visit is with adults though!