NC State Fair: What to do, best rides + top picks for kids

There’s so much to do at the NC State Fair. Between checking out the new rides, visiting all the animals, trying the new fair foods and enjoying the free entertainment, it seems impossible to take in the whole fair in a day.

Or is it?

The News & Observer chatted with Heather Overton, assistant director of the NC State Fair press office (and longtime fairgoer with perfect attendance for many years, she says), to get her roadmap for packing the most into a perfect day at the fair.

How to see and do everything at the NC State Fair

Overton says you should be able to see and do most of the things you want at the State Fair if you plan in advance. But even after many perfect-attendance years, she still finds something new to enjoy every year, she said.

You can pace yourself as time allows and follow this guide in one day, or you can split the schedule up across two different days. The first half of the schedule works for a daytime visit, while the second half can be done in the evening.

Insider type: If you only have one day to go to the fair, make sure you pick a day when the music you really want to hear will be playing. The Heritage Circle Stage is strictly bluegrass, while the Waterfall Music Stage has different music every day, alternating between hip hop, Latin, jazz, Christian, rock and much more. (Dorton Arena concerts have been replaced by the Homegrown Music Fest across two stages each day of the fair.)

Courtney Stegall,12, left and pal Scarlett Harris,13 ride the Ring of Fire at the North Carolina State Fair Thursday Oct.18, 2007. The girls were visiting the fair from Cornerstone Christian School in Roanoke Rapids. Morning showers made way for a hot steamy afternoon the sixth day of the fair. staff file photo

Here’s how to see (almost!) everything at the fair in a single trip:

Start with smart parking: Park in the new Cardinal Lot and enter the fair using Gate 7. You’ll be near the Forestry Exhibits, the original NC State Fair giant Smokey Bear and Heritage Circle.

While you’re here, grab an apple dumpling, apple cider, John Deere Ice Cream or kettle cornOverton recommends.

Visit the Flower Show: Take the traditional selfie in front of the Candle Display, Overton said. If you’re with a group, snag a photo in the giant chair located within the Flower Show.

Hop on the Fair Flyer and make your way to the other side of the fairgrounds, Overton said. Make it a one-way trip, saving the second half of the trip for your ride back to the gate at the end of the day. (Insider type: You can split your round-trip Fair Flyer ticket into two one-way rides.)

Take in the sights from the air, resting your legs before a fun-filled day of covering the fairgrounds.

A crowded midway at the 2011 North Carolina State Fair Sunday, Oct. 23. TAKAAKI IWABU

Head over to the Midway for some rides (or over to Kiddieland for children’s rides, if you’re with young ones), Overton said. The fair Flyer will take you to the Orville Terminus station, a short walk from many rides for all ages.

insider type for purchasing tickets with kids: If your kids aren’t huge riders, forgo the wristbands, and get two $10 ride sheets for your family’s trip to the fair. Use leftover tickets on your favorite ride, like the SkyGazer or the Pirate Ship.

With older teenagers (or anyone who loves going on thrill rides), get the admission ticket and wristband. That way you don’t have to spend so much once you get to the fair, she recommends. You can purchase the voucher online ahead of time, and pick up the wristband once you get to the fairgrounds.

While you’re on this side of the fairgrounds, Overton recommends checking out these must-see spots:

  • Enjoy the art exhibits in the Kerr Scott Building.

  • Take in the decorated cakes and quilts in the Education Building. These are both super popular attractions.

  • Check out the LEGO competition entries and painted rocks in the Commercial Building — a hit for all ages, especially young children.

  • buy a Miss Debbie’s apple from the Commercial Building to take home and enjoy after you leave the fair. (You might also choose to weigh yourself at the Standards Division official scale in the Education Building, a tradition for some longtime-attending families.)

Eat!: There will be so many locally made, delicious food stands close by, Overton said. Use the new food maps to help you find your meal:

Swing by Got To Be NC exhibit in Dorton Arena to sample the local products. (You should find some free snacks here.)

While you’re at Dorton, visit the south side for an NC beer or wine at the Public House.

Ride the SkyGazer: It’s the 155-foot Ferris wheel. You can purchase your tickets online, ahead of the fair, at a discount. Or head to a ticket booth on the fairgrounds to ensure you and your group have enough tickets to ride together.

Sloane Hinnant, 4, of Wilson, NC walks her lamb, Mr. Isabelle, into the exposition center for the Junior Market Lamb Showmanship Champion contest Thursday, October 15, 2015 at the NC State Fair in Raleigh, NC Jill Knight

Go to the Agri Supply Expo Center: And prepare to spend some time inside.

Here, you can get your photo at the bench in front of the giant pumpkins and watermelons, Overton said. (Insider type: This is one of the most photographed area on the fairgrounds!)

Try your hand at milking a cow at the NC State Milking Booth located in the back of this building.

the State Fair Ark is in this building, where you can see cow/calf breeds on display, along with piglets, goats, pea fowl and honeybees.

Check out the daily livestock shows at the back of the Expo Center and in the Graham Building, Overton said. These shows change every day, so you should read the daily schedule ahead of time to see which show you can catch when you visit. (Overton’s favorites to attend are the costume classes!)

Walk through the Village of Yesteryear and see the 75 crafters showing off their old-school skills, Overton said. Catch a musical act or a lumberjack show.

If Yesteryear isn’t really your thing, now’s a great time to go back to the Midway and hop on some more rides or play some games. (Read up on our guide to winning ’em! Note games are cash-only.)

Grab a sweet treat: At the Lunch Stands near the Orville Terminus. Overton recommends some NC State Howling Cow ice cream, and you can find more snacks to bring back home.

While you’re here, you’ll pass vendors selling NC State Fair merchandise, like tee shirts and sweatshirts.

Wanda Lovelace makes cotton candy as she readies for opening day of the State Fair at the NC State Fairgrounds in Raleigh, NC Wednesday, October 14, 2015. Staff file photo

Hop back on the Fair Flyer: And head back over the Heritage Circle. Hopefully the sun has set so you can enjoy the fair’s bright lights from above!

Catch Ember Fire Arts at 9 pm, then the fireworks are shot over the pond at 9:45 pm nightly.

“Get a hot apple cider and take a seat to end your fair day with a fireworks show,” Overton said.

Catch the shuttle and head back to Gate 7, where Overton recommended coming in.

And there you have it! A filled-to-the-brim day at the NC State Fair.

What to do with young kids at the NC State Fair

If you’re headed to the fair with young children, Overton recommends spending a lot of the day in Kiddieland.

It’s designed for young riders, located near the Midway and the Waterfall. This area also has the longtime Agri-Cadabra Show.

Here are some Kiddieland insider tips Overton shared:

  • Fortunately for parents, many of the fair’s food vendors bringing new fair eats (and longtime favorites) are located near Kiddieland. While your kids ride, you can eat!

  • Adults ride for free with a young child who has a ticket on both the carousel and the giant slide.

Asa Anderson, left, sits on a John Deere tractor while his mom, Kavanah, right, watches during the final day of the North Carolina State Fair in Raleigh, NC on Sunday, Oct. 23, 2016. Ben McKeown

Here are Overton’s top choices for a day at the fair with kids:

Field of Dreams: This is a miniature farm near Dorton Arena and close to Kiddieland.

“Kids can try their hand at harvesting crops and selling them at the market, ride a pedal tractor and visit the Field of Dreams bunnies,” Overton said.

giant pumpkins: “Get a picture of your pumpkins with the giant pumpkins! Seriously, I made my kids do this every year,” she said.

The pumpkins are in the Agri Supply Expo Center. Visit the State Fair Ark, and then try milking a cow at the NC State Fair Milking Booth.

school art: If you have a school-aged child, their school art may be on display in the Kerr Scott Building, Overton said.

You can check out the LEGOS, plus other crafts and hobbies, on display in the Commercial Building.

The Story of Smokey Bear: “Talk to Big Smokey Bear — he will know your name!” Overton said.

While you’re here, catch the Paul Bunyan Lumberjack Show, which will be fun for the whole family.

Kendall Walas, left, Jackie Jenkins, middle, and Emily, right, watch a stage show called The Magic Bean during the final day of the North Carolina State Fair in Raleigh, NC on Sunday, Oct. 23, 2016. Ben McKeown

Casey Clubhouse: Visit the Clubhouse in Kiddieland to enjoy a visit with the fair’s mascot, Casey Cardinal.

The Fire Safety Show: Fire departments from around the state put on an educational and entertaining show in Kiddieland.

Hog Diggity Dogs: This show, near Gate 10, features hogs and dogs. It’s new this year.

Scavenger Hunts: Check out the age-appropriate scavenger hunt worksheets on the fair’s website. Completed worksheets win a prize!

Fairgoers of all ages (solo or in groups!) can take the NC State Fair Selfie Challenge, perfect for a full day on the fairgrounds.

Find scavenger hunts and the Selfie Challenge online:

Related stories from Raleigh News & Observer

Kimberly Cataudella (she/her) is a service journalism reporter for The News & Observer.