Droves of revelers coursed back to the Minnesota State Fair on opening day Thursday, eager to experience familiar flavors and thrills and a sense of back-to-normal after two years in the shadow of COVID-19.

Traffic was backed up for miles around the fairgrounds in the morning, and many popular pedestrian boulevards inside were elbow-to-elbow by midday. Several early arrivals said they wanted to get a jumpstart on the festivities after skipping the fair last year due to COVID concerns.

"We decided this year, we are doing it!" said Dawn Benson of Mendota Heights, who was enjoying ice cream for breakfast with her husband and two young daughters. "We are getting back out there."

Fair officials anticipate total 12-day attendance of 1.7 million — less than the record-setting 2.1 million in 2019, but more than the 1.3 million last year.

Waiting for eager attendees were 300 food concessions, more than 70 amusement rides, exhibits, political campaigns, live media broadcasts, arts and crafts, and agricultural competitions showcasing more than 20,000 animals.

Stephen Mikkelson, media coordinator for Eco Experience at the fair, said he felt like he'd time traveled back to 2019. Heavy crowds were checking out the massive moose made of recycled cardboard and the oversized loon, as well as other exhibits, he said.

"From the moment we opened, it was a packed house and it's been that way the whole day," said Mikkelson, who works for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA), which sponsors Eco Experience.

Brandi Bast and her school-age daughter, Emma, drove in from outstate Thursday morning, picking up two cousins in Roseville. By 10 a.m., they were checking out the fairgrounds from the Space Tower. They skipped the fair last year, Bast said, but this year they feel safe.

"It's our last little outing before school starts," she said.

It was 2-year-old Odynn Nielsen's first State Fair, and he was taking his time gently patting the rabbits on display. The entire Nielsen family, from St. Louis Park, had come for opening day.

"We skipped a couple of years because of COVID. We wanted to be safe," said Mary Nielsen, mom of Odynn, Margaux, 4, and Olie, 7. "We came out this year for the kids. We want them to see the animals and have all the experiences. We are super excited."

In years past the fair was a multiday event for the family, Nielsen said, but higher prices would likely limit them to one day this year. They spent the morning fawning over rabbits, sheep and even the fish pond at the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) building. Olie said he also tried the Giant Slide, proudly describing his technique for getting the most acceleration.

"He got some air," Mary Nielsen chimed in.

Heidi and Patrick Hau of St. Paul show up for opening day every year — and every year they prepare by eating healthful foods, including kale smoothies, in the lead-up to the big event. They also burn some calories by riding their bicycles to the fair and back.

"Then you don't have to feel guilty about 16 hours of gluttonous eating and beer drinking," Patrick Hau said as the couple noshed on cheese curds and a new veggie offering from the Herbivorous Butcher, paired with morning beer flights.

The couple said this year felt busy, like opening days before COVID.

"It seemed 50 percent last year. It seemed small and scaled down," Heidi Hau said. "This year seems like we are back! The band is back together."

Jennifer Tatur of Andover brought her 10-year-old granddaughter Emilia to the fair, and they spent most of the morning on rides. Tatur said she also stopped to take a photograph of the personalized bench she'd recently purchased to honor her brother, Jeff Hanna, who died of COVID in 2020. She's also purchased a bench to honor her late father.

"My dad and my brother always loved to come to the fair," Tatur said.

Next week, Tatur will be back with her entire brood of grandchildren. It's a family tradition she's intent on passing down.

"It's such a beautiful day," she said.