Festival Fun On The Cheap For Young And Old

Ferris Wheel (custom) i i

hide captionIn cities like Chicago, neighborhood festivals can be found every weekend from Memorial Day through Labor Day.

Courtesy of the Neighborhood Boys and Girls Club
Ferris Wheel (custom)

In cities like Chicago, neighborhood festivals can be found every weekend from Memorial Day through Labor Day.

Courtesy of the Neighborhood Boys and Girls Club

Many families, and children in particular, dream of vacationing in Disney World or Disneyland, but such trips are sure to be a nightmare for the family savings.

There's lunch with Cinderella, gift stores galore, expensive food, hotels and the cost of travel — not to mention the price of park admission.

So for those trying to squeeze more fun and excitement out of a lot less money this summer, NPR is trying to help out by offering some ideas for Cheap Thrills. Here, NPR's David Schaper checks out some less expensive amusement park-style fun close to his Midwest home.

Here in Chicago, since our summers are so short, we try to get the most out of them with neighborhood festivals and carnivals, which you can find scattered through the city and suburbs every weekend from Memorial Day through Labor Day.

One of the biggest is the Neighborhood Boys and Girls Club's Family Fest, held in a huge parking lot off of Irving Park Road, near some old factories on the city's North Side.

What's Your 'Cheap Thrill'?

Do you have ideas for how to have fun on your days off where you live, or in a place you've visited? Are there free or low-cost art museums, exhibits, theater outings, recreation opportunities, beaches, dining and lodging or other amusement options that you want to let your fellow Americans know about? Tell us here, and we'll add some of your submissions to our map.

There's a midway of sorts, with lots of games offering prizes like live goldfish or big stuffed animals — which, of course, are not Disney characters.

"You don't have to go to Disney World," says Jim Gallery, a Neighborhood Boys and Girls Club volunteer, as he sells drink tickets in the beer tent — a must-have at neighborhood festivals. "It's a long way to go for what I would consider standing in a lot of lines. Whereas, here you come and get right in. There's a bunch of rides — they're the best rides of any of the carnivals. You get that funky carnival look, too, look and feel."

Instead of seeing Cinderella and other Disney characters, Gallery says the characters here "have more tattoos per capita and fewer teeth."

In all fairness, the ride and game operators are neatly dressed, clean and polite — nothing like the carnies we saw as kids.

Festival Bargains

The best thing about this carnival is that most of the money goes to a good cause: the club and its programs for neighborhood children.

Not that that this day of amusements costs that much money, anyway.

"Clearly, this is much better for the bottom line," Inger Carle, a mother of two children, ages 3 and 6, says while waiting for the younger one to get off a slow-moving mini Ferris wheel.

"You can buy just a couple of tickets to go on a couple of rides, [or] you can buy a pass," she says, "It's exciting for them and it's right down the street, which is awesome."

Parents such as Carle can spend as much or as little as they want at the carnival, with individual ride tickets for the little-kid rides costing just a dollar or two. Tickets for the bigger, faster (and more nauseating) bigger-kid rides can cost up to $4, and while that can add up quickly, bargain passes are available.

At Family Fest, a mega-pass gives you unlimited rides for the entire five days of the festival for just $45, if purchased in advance. That's a far cry from the $79 one-day pass to Disney World (before taxes).

Carnival games i i

hide captionAt Chicago's Family Fest, a mega-pass gives you unlimited rides for the entire five days of the festival for just $45 — a far cry from the $79 one-day pass to Disney World, before taxes.

Courtesy of the Neighborhood Boys and Girls Club
Carnival games

At Chicago's Family Fest, a mega-pass gives you unlimited rides for the entire five days of the festival for just $45 — a far cry from the $79 one-day pass to Disney World, before taxes.

Courtesy of the Neighborhood Boys and Girls Club

But Can It Stand Up To The D-Word?

Carle tries comparing the carnival to a family trip to a Disney theme park — something that she says she is trying to save up for.

"It doesn't have the same — the fireworks, the magic," she says about the neighborhood festival, "but this is really, really fun" for the kids.

But how much fun can it really be for the kid whose heart is set on going to Disney someday?

"So much, like, I wish I could live here," says 4-year-old Rebecca Byrnes, who happens to be the daughter of Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan.

Madigan asks that we not mention the D-word (Disney), even though Rebecca has never been and doesn't know what she's missing. It's a tight rope many of us parents walk.

Sick And Dizzy Fun

Slide (custom) i i

hide captionFamily Fest satisfies kids with rides, like the fun slide, and keeps adults happy with beer gardens and heavy-metal cover bands.

Courtesy of the Neighborhood Boys and Girls Club
Slide (custom)

Family Fest satisfies kids with rides, like the fun slide, and keeps adults happy with beer gardens and heavy-metal cover bands.

Courtesy of the Neighborhood Boys and Girls Club

I've never taken my 13-year-old son to Disney World, but here I give him $20, and that buys him a wristband for unlimited rides for four hours — and he still has five bucks left over for games or food. That will allow him to ride his favorites, Zero Gravity and Super Shot, over and over and over again.

"Its just fun, because you get, like, stuck to the wall and it's, like, kind of crazy and there's, like, strobe lights at night. And the ride, like, tilts completely so it's almost vertical, and it spins," Michael says, giving his review of Zero Gravity.

How does he feel when he gets off?

"Just really dizzy," he says, "then you, like, can't walk straight and you sort of feel sick."

He says he never threw up on the ride, but a couple of his friends did.

While the kids are spinning themselves sick, parents can visit the beer tent, where children are not allowed. The choice of drinks include Pabst Blue Ribbon, Berghoff Beer and sangria, for $4 each.

The food is pretty affordable too, mostly in the $4 to $6 range and falling into two basic food groups — sticky or deep-fried.

And then there's the music. There's no sappy "It's A Small World" or other Disney-esque songs. This carnival features heavy-metal cover bands, headlined by The War Pigs, a Black Sabbath tribute band.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: