The cold rain that fell Thursday afternoon wasn't enough to dampen Alayna Jones' joy.

Along with thousands of others who wandered the Minnesota State Fairgrounds on the first of five days of a Memorial Day weekend event, Jones finally was feeling a sense of normalcy after a pandemic year that was anything but. Live music blared across the grounds amid the aromas of corn dogs, cotton candy and cheese curds.

Jones and her boyfriend, Chris Westly, were eager to take it all in.

"I just wanted to be outside, to be normal, without a mask," Jones said as she waited in line for a foot-long hot dog.

The sold-out "Kickoff to Summer," which will draw about 70,000 people to the fairgrounds, is one of the largest events there since COVID-19 shut down the state in March 2020.

About 50,000 people signed up for a lottery that gave them a chance to buy up to six tickets for one of seven time slots spread across five days for the mini-fair event. Visitors need the advance ticket to get in; no walk-ins are allowed.

Rain or shine, the State Fair die-hards couldn't miss the opportunity to get a taste in May of what may come during the state's annual 12-day end-of-summer celebration in August. Although this weekend's event is a much smaller version of the typical State Fair, Jones and others who poured through the gates were thrilled to be able to satisfy a craving for fair food and crowds.

"This is tradition. I waited a whole year and half for this," said Julia Fish as she stood with her sister and two nieces in a block-long line for Pronto Pups.

She and her sister, Stephanie Kavanagh, have come to the State Fair over most of the five decades they've been alive.

"You walk through and there's so much nostalgia here," Kavanagh said.

Take the Ye Old Mill "tunnel of love," for instance. "When you go through as a kid, it seems way too dark. It's pitch black," Kavanagh said. "And then you get older and you have a boyfriend, then you want to go in there and kiss."

For her and so many others, returning to these familiar grounds after a year of social distancing and upheaval was as comforting as the aroma of Tiny Tim Donuts and Sweet Martha's cookies. Few were bothered by having to step around puddles, cover themselves with massive umbrellas or bundle up with fleece under rain ponchos.

"After a year of COVID, being in large groups just seems like a fun thing to be doing again," said Sean Boll, who found protection from the rain under a tree's canopy. "I love the fair. I've been going since before I was one year old."

His father showed livestock at the fair and Boll, who grew up in 4-H, showed rabbits. Now 50, Boll runs the 4-H dormitories during the fair's 12-day run. "I was eager to be back," he said.

So was Barbara Sommerville, 69, of St. Paul, who has gone to the fair since she was a baby. "The fair is home to me," she said. "It's one of those foundational things in life. It gives you a sense of security. And lots of memories."

Thursday's outing to the fairgrounds with her daughter and two grandchildren felt more than comforting.

"It feels victorious after a pandemic," she said. "It's a real celebration."

Down the street, avid fairgoer Amy Gillette of Rosemount and her group were feeling a renewed sense of freedom.

"COVID is still in the forefront of your mind," she said. But amid the familiar sights and sounds of the fairgrounds, there's a little relief. "You can forget about your cares for a little while," she said.

For Ron Carter, who owns Angry Minnow Vintage, the event brings relief that life as it once was may be returning.

"I don't want to tear up, but it's amazing," he said. "As a small-business owner, you don't realize how much you love being around people until you can't. Everything feels new again."

Staff writer Tim Harlow contributed to this report.

Mary Lynn Smith • 612-673-4788