The Best State Fairs You Need to Enjoy This Fall

Millions of visitors will descend on the state fairs of Arizona, Texas and New England this year. Here’s why you should be one of them.

Family walking through the games section of an amusement park

by NEA Member Benefits

For more than a century, America’s state fairs have drawn visitors who want to walk the fairgrounds, cotton candy in hand. They come to partake in a cook-off, watch an equestrian show, bring the kids to a petting zoo, enjoy amusement rides, dance to live music or learn something new at an agricultural expo.

Here’s what you need to know about three of America’s most famous state fairs, any of which could anchor your next getaway. We give you the rundown on each event and offer a list of nearby attractions, places to stay and local eateries (after you’ve had your fill of deep-fried candy bars and pickles).

Eastern States Exposition

West Springfield, Massachusetts | Sept. 13–29, 2019

Photo © The Big E


West Springfield—in the heart of Massachusetts’ Pioneer Valley in the western part of the state—is home to the Eastern States Exposition. “The Big E”—the collaborative effort of Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Vermont and Rhode Island—promises to be extra special in 2016 as it celebrates its centennial.

The fair is home to the largest livestock show on the entire East Coast as well as A-rated championship horse shows. There are the requisite agricultural exhibits—think giant 1,000-pound pumpkins—and demonstrations that will teach you and your family everything from how dogs herd sheep to how bees make honey. You might even learn how alpaca wool is used to create textiles or how to milk a cow.

If you’re the competitive type, enter a skill-based contest. Submit your best jam or jelly, or join a cake decorating throw-down. Professionals can vie for the title of best cheesemaker, vintner or cider-maker while kids enter 4-H and  Future Farmers of America competitions.

Daily parades and a circus are scheduled, and what would a New England state fair be without its midway? The Big E boasts more than 40 rides, including plenty of kid-friendly options. Live concerts are also a hallmark of the fair, and this year major artists such as Charlie Daniels, Alabama and Kansas will perform for free. 

Lesson-plan resources:

Look to National Agriculture in the Classroom for lesson plans and facts about the member states of The Big E.

Plan your trip: Greater Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau, Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism.

Driving distances: 60 minutes from Worcester, Massachusetts and New Haven, Connecticut | 90 minutes from Boston, Massachusetts; Danbury, Connecticut; Albany, New York; and Province, Rhode Island | 2 hours from Nashua, New Hampshire | 2.5 hours from Montpelier, Vermont | 3 hours from Portland, Maine

Other nearby activities: Six Flags New England, Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, The Zoo in Forest Park

Where to stay: Sodom Mountain Campground, Red Roof Inn Plus+ West Springfield, Hilton Garden Inn Springfield

Where to eat: Donut Dip, Auntie Cathie’s Kitchen, Cal’s Wood-Fired Grill & Wine Bar

State Fair of Texas

Dallas | Sept. 27–Oct. 20, 2019

Photo courtesy of the Kevin Brown/State Fair of Texas

This 277-acre fairground is home to so much more than the annual State Fair of Texas. The compound, which dates to 1886, is a National Historic Landmark and is also home to the Children’s Aquarium at Fair Park, Texas Discovery Gardens, the African American Museum of Dallas, the Texas Vietnam Veterans Memorial and more.

Truth be told, you could spend several days at the fair and still not do and see everything. How you tackle the myriad aspects of the fair depends on what interests you most. Teachers traveling with kids will gravitate to Big Tex’s Farmyard and the Children’s Health Barnyard, both of which give little ones the opportunity to get close to and learn about a variety of farm animals, including pudgy piglets, just-hatched chicks and cute calves.

The fair offers all of the traditional pastimes such as livestock and equine shows as well as car displays (both new and classic), the midway and concerts. Want to return home with some Lone Star State bragging rights? Enter the chili, barbecue or Dutch oven cook-offs.

At night, adults and children love the Starlight Parade at which lavishly decorated floats and costumed characters are awash in light. The festivities lead up to the Illumination Sensation, at which the Esplanade’s reflecting pool is the center of an entertainment spectacular that’s composed of dancing water, lasers, fireworks and liquid-fire fountains. 

Lesson-plan resources:

Download the State Fair of Texas Curriculum.

Plan your trip: Dallas Convention & Visitors Bureau, Texas Office of Tourism

Driving distances: 60 minutes from Hillsboro, Denton and Decatur, Texas | 90 minutes from Tyler, Waco and Paris, Texas | 2.5 hours from Texarkana, Texas and Shreveport, Louisiana | 3.5 hours from Houston

Other nearby activities: Dallas Zoo, The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza

Where to stay: Red Roof Inn Dallas—Richardson, Homewood Suites Downtown, The Adolphus Hotel

Where to eat: Hypnotic Donuts, Rodeo Goat (burgers), Pecan Lodge (barbecue)

Arizona State Fair

Phoenix | TBD, 2019

Photo courtesy of the Arizona State Fair

The Arizona State Fair is first and foremost for music lovers. This annual gathering goes back some 130 years—before Arizona was even a state—and has hosted some of the world’s most famous musicians. Elvis played here as did the Rolling Stones. In 2018 a wide range of musicians performed, including country music duo Big & Rich, hip-hop artist Pitbull, and bands like The Flaming Lips, 38 Special, The Wallflowers and others. The best part about the concerts? They are free with admission to the fair.

Of course, there’s so much more to this annual gathering than just music. You can enjoy a rodeo, petting zoo, car races and BMX stunt shows. There are livestock demonstrations and 4-H exhibits as well as an impressive Agricultural Center featuring today’s innovations in farming. Beyond those activities you’ll find the midway with diversions such as a Ferris wheel, roller coasters and bumper cars.

Whatever you do, make sure you arrive to the fair with an empty stomach so you can sample oddities like beer-battered bacon and spaghetti ice cream. 

Lesson-plan resources:

The online reference Arizona Experience offers a plethora of lesson plans, including one about farming and ranching that dovetails nicely with the state fair.

Plan your trip: Visit Phoenix, Visit Arizona

Driving distances: 2 hours from Sedona and Tucson, Arizona | 3 hours from Lake Havasu City and Yuma, Arizona

Other nearby activities: Desert Botanical Garden, Phoenix Zoo, Arizona Science Center

Where to stay: Red Roof Plus+ Phoenix West, Renaissance Phoenix Downtown Hotel, Hyatt Regency Phoenix

Where to eat: Rusconi’s American Kitchen, Bobby-Q, Phoenix Public Market Cafe, In-N-Out Burger

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