The Minnesota State Fair can be noisy, noisome, crowded, overheated, overfed fun.
The fair can be a lot. The fair can be too much.
Some people struggle to process the fair's deep-fried sensory overload. This year, the Minnesota State Fair itself hopes to help.
Jillian Nelson prepped for a day at the fair like a mountaineer summiting a peak with hostile terrain but spectacular views.
"As an autistic adult," she said, "I would watch the weather and I would purposefully go on a day it was going to be raining. I would go early in the morning and as soon as it started to get even an inkling of crowded, I was out of there."
She pored over fairground maps, planned her routes and set out on each day's adventure with supportive friends and a backpack full of tools. Noise-canceling headphones, fidget toys, a cooling cloth, her favorite water bottle filled with water from home.
"It meant that my fair trips were very, very dictated by other people's habits and other people's choices," said Nelson, community resource and policy advocate for the Autism Society of Minnesota. "Sometimes it meant I got to see all the things I wanted and taste all the things I wanted. Sometimes it meant that I had to pull the parachute cord and jump out of the plane earlier than I was ready for."
Every year, fair organizers work to make the 12-day celebration more accessible. It wouldn't be a Great Minnesota Get-Together without all of us.
This year, on a Monday morning while the air is cool and the crowds are sparse, the flashing lights of the Mighty Midway will dim. The music will hush. The carnival barkers will mute their microphones.
Aug. 28 will be the fair's first sensory-friendly morning. For a few hours, the Midway and Kidway will reduce the noise and commotion as much as possible to give kids and adults with sensory processing differences a chance to ride the rides and play the games in peace.
"We're known as the Great Minnesota Get-Together and so it's important that everyone feels welcome and is able to enjoy a full day at the fair," said fair marketing director Christine Noonan.
The Fraser Sensory Building on Cosgrove Street, just across from the education building, is an oasis of air-conditioned calm, where any visitor who's feeling overwhelmed can relax until they're ready to head back out.
It's a kindness in a world that isn't always kind to people with disabilities or differences.
"When you create sensory-friendly spaces, it's kind of like the Field of Dreams," Nelson said. If you build them, families will come — not just for the fun, but for the relief of knowing that the people around them will understand, and won't judge, if a child has a meltdown in the middle of the Mighty Midway.
Bit by bit, the fair is working to make the fairgrounds more accessible. For the first time this year, there will be an accessible restroom trailer, equipped with adult changing tables and a ceiling hoist to help visitors in and out of wheelchairs and mobility scooters. There will be sign language interpreters everywhere from the bandstand to the History-On-A-Stick shows to the llama costume contests, along with caption screens and audio descriptions.
Having sensory-friendly spaces to take a break is great, Nelson says. But you don't buy a ticket to the fair to take a break. You buy a ticket so you can dig into a cheese curd taco and cheer the llama costume contest. A few accommodations and a little kindness make that possible.
"I know 'Minnesota Nice' gets a bad rap as just passive-aggressive," Nelson said. "Under the heart of it, there really is a Minnesota Nice. The Midwest has this amazing and welcoming culture. We can extend that to our neighbors with disabilities and differences."
Sensory-friendly morning at the Minnesota State Fair will be Monday, Aug. 28, from 9-11 a.m. at the Kidway and from 10 a.m. to noon at the Mighty Midway. For more information, visit the fair's website at mnstatefair.org.