Family-Friendly Fest-Going in 6 Steps

Katie Larson, photos by Mike O'Brien |


When I was growing up, summertime always meant one thing: music – lots and lots of live music. From a young age, my parents brought me to festivals, big and small. I sang with the bands in a sea of people, surfed picnic tables, hopped bleachers, and loved to stand – ears pressed against the speakers – with my dad, so we could take it all in. From the age of 7, I spent a better part of two weeks at the Milwaukee lakefront enjoying the big bands, enduring the blistering sun, surviving the afternoon thunderstorms, and outsmarting the traffic on the way home. I didn’t have ear protection. I didn’t have a poncho. And I doubt I wore sunscreen (and if I did, my freckled shoulders are telling me it wasn’t reapplied after the initial slathering). Those summer fests meant freedom, they brought about excitement, they connected me to my parents and my friends, and they taught me how to love the theatrics associated with putting on a show. (Don’t believe me? Look up Rocket 88’s rendition of “Great Balls of Fire.” It will change your life.) Although the times are slightly different, there are a few things that remain the same: The bands are still touring, the local communities are still putting up tents, and there are plenty of opportunities for family adventuring while enjoying some amazingly talented musicians. If you have kids and are considering taking them to some of the larger local music festivals this summer, here are some tips on how to do it (slightly) safer than my parents did. 

1. Know the fest

Nowadays, just about every festival has a website providing initial information about whether or not the fest is family-friendly. Karen Wells Verlander of the Blue Ox Music Festival suggests looking at the website as a whole before deciding to take the kids. If you are trying to determine if the festival is family-friendly, she suggests “looking at the general look and feel of the branding for the festival, and the images that illustrate the atmosphere and environment for attendees.” If there are images of kids playing with bubbles or participating in musical events, then chances are it is a family-friendly fest. In the ticket section of the website, look for an age limit, the cost of entry for a child, and any fine print associated with bringing a minor to the music.

2. Check out the music

If you are planning on going to a festival with your family, then chances are you have a specific band you would like them to enjoy. In the event you don’t know every band taking the stage that day, then a little bit of research might be in order. If you are apprehensive about a band’s music or content, then check out their website. Listen to them alone and, if the music is appropriate, listen to them with your kid. Ask them who they are excited to see and make a plan for the day so you don’t miss an act. Make it more of a bonding experience about the music, which will lessen some of the burden of having to entertain your family on the festival grounds.

3. Beware the witching hour

During the day, most festivals are safe for children of all ages to enjoy. In fact, many festivals cater to families by offering free entrance in the morning or afternoon. The Blue Ox Music Festival offers all-ages morning yoga sessions, musical workshops for budding young musicians, kid-friendly presentations and presenters, and has a family-friendly quiet camping zone so the littles can get their zzz’s without being disturbed. Although many festivals encourage family togetherness, there is something to be said about how the atmosphere changes once the sun goes down and the larger acts take the stage. If the crowds get to be too much, stick to the outskirts or the back of the stage where the music can still be heard and the crowd is less intense.

4. Avoid being a pack mule

Parents today have a tendency to pack everything! If you are finding yourself walking out of the house with a suitcase filled with toys, three sets of clothes for each child, snacks, and a first aid kit, then set down that luggage, take a deep breath, and hear me out. Festivals have first aid tents that supply Band-Aids, ice packs, and basic first aid supplies, so leave those at home. There are also little shops where things can be purchased if they are absolutely needed. Additionally, toys and electronics will be ignored by your kids, so save the time and energy and leave them at home. (Trust me, your back will thank you later.) Instead grab some bubbles, a blanket or sleeping bag for the family to sit on, and, if it is necessary, some paper and crayons for them to draw the scenes around them. But what if they get bored? That’s easy: Explore the grounds, enjoy the local foods and cuisines, and encourage them to run, laugh, and get dirty.

5. Watch the skies

If you are from Wisconsin, then you know the summer days are blissful, the afternoons can be volatile, and the evenings are cool and crisp. Prepare for the weather when deciding what to wear. Dress the little ones in layers and comfortable shoes so they can enjoy exploring the festival grounds. If it is easy to pack, bring a poncho (or buy one at the festival) to keep them dry and warm if the rains come. Slather them in sunscreen and bring a hat so they have some form of shade. Know where the emergency exits and tornado shelters are within the festival grounds, and talk to your child about what to do in the event of an emergency.

6. You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here (usually)

If you live close to a festival, then there are multiple options for getting to the music and finding your way home at the end of the night. The Blue Ox Music Festival offers affordably-priced shuttles to many locations throughout Eau Claire. They run every half an hour from mid-morning to late at night. If you like the convenience of having a car at a festival, parking is generally offered at most fests, too. Rideshare companies, such as Uber and Lyft, allow minors to ride with a parent or guardian. In general, it is best if the minors can ride safely without a special car seat, so if you have to bring along a car or booster seat, then it might be more convenient to bring your own vehicle to the fest. Some festivals, such as Blue Ox, have general camping available for those who want to have a stay-cation. At most festivals, campsites are typically reserved for a nominal fee, and there are quiet zones set up for those who want to get a good night’s rest. If you are going to stay at a fest, prepare ahead of time.