I’m a born and raised Calgarian. I’ve been in the city for 30-some Stampedes. One would think I would have grown tired of the festivities by now, but to the contrary, I actually love this time of year. I was never one to be out partying hard for those 10 days, but I do love a good celebratory atmosphere and the entire city seems to be at elevated levels of good cheer during Stampede week.
Since having kids, the way we do Stampede has changed. Before the little ones arrived, we’d always spend a day at the grounds, usually arriving around noon, strolling through the Round-Up Centre (now the BMO Centre) looking at all the things we never knew we really needed (we’ve been the proud owners of the ShamWow for seven years and used them approximately twice), and staying late for the fireworks.
In the past few years, we’ve arrived as early as possible, loaded down with a stroller full of sunscreen, water bottles, snacks, wipes (wipes and more wipes), and every other thing we can think of that will hopefully stave off a tantrum. These days, it’s less adult rides and late evenings, more petting zoo and rushing home for nap time.
Rest assured, Stampede really is a great place to take your kids. Admission is reasonable (or free!) for kids and there are many free activities that can easily take up half to a full day. But it can also be hot and crowded. Here are some of the best ways I’ve found to survive the Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth when you’re navigating it with children.
Detour to Weadickville
No matter how many fruit leathers and granola bars you bring, the endless food carts and smells are ripe with the potential for massive tantrums. The food options are endless, but the price adds up quickly. If you’re trying to stay on a budget, give in to their pleas for Stampede food and head to Weadickville. Merchants sell hot dogs (good, nitrate-free ones!), slurpees, pepperoni sticks, cheese buns and more for the best prices on the grounds. You can give them the “eating out” experience with a decent, fun meal for little more than you might pay for a kids’ meal at a fast-food establishment.
It’s just a momentary break, but the Buckaroos area in the BMO Centre has brilliantly set up couches in front of the big (supervised) climbing structure, so parents can catch their breath. Use the couches. I mean, not inappropriately of course (no stretching out for a 20-minute power nap or letting the wild animal instincts that led to you becoming parents in the first place take over), but definitely take the opportunity to decompress from the heat and overall busyness of Stampede. About 10 feet from the couches is device charging station, so your phone can recharge and get a little boost while you rest.
Have a Back-up Plan
Over 100,000 visitors typically head to the grounds in a given day. You can show up with a plan in mind (and that’s a good thing), but sometimes long line-ups or the hot sun can interfere. It’s hard to predict just how antsy or patient your kid might be that given day.
Use a feature like the free Stampede app or the free guide offered to you just inside the gates to find out what’s happening, where and when. If you got a ticket for Superdogs and the early line-up looks too intimidating, see if the promise of petting a baby chick or digging around the Agrium Ag-tivity area is enough to distract your kids until a later show. Always have a couple of promised treats you can deliver on, like mini-donuts right before heading home. Even if some of your plans have to change or be delayed, being able to follow through on some of the things they’re looking forward to will hopefully prevent a full-scale meltdown.
Trains & Automobiles (Sorry, no planes)
If you plan to take transit to the grounds, the ride home can be long, hot and crowded for young kids. Alternatively, driving down to the grounds can be risky if the lots or full, or the line-up to get out of the park is long.
If you plan to take the train, go on the weekend and/or get there early in the morning (which you will be if you’re taking advantage of the Family or Kids’ Day) rather than choosing an end of the line station. Your car will be a couple stops away and the weekend/early start should allow you to get a parking spot.
Get there early. Like really early.
The Stampede offers great, family-friendly events like Family Day and Kids’ Day, offering perks like free breakfast and admission if you get there early in the morning. And if you like to save money, those are great options for making the outing more affordable. However, maybe you aren’t a family of early risers, but you’ve never considered the idea of going before the real party officially begins. I hadn’t until this year, but after last night, it’s safe to say this will likely become an annual family tradition.
Sneak-a-Peek is a preview to the big show. It’s only open for five hours, instead of the usual full day, so if you’re kids go to bed early or don’t do well in the evenings, this isn’t for you. However, if you can extend bedtime by an hour or two, it’s worth the shortened period. Adults get into the park for half the usual admission price. The line-ups for rides in the Kids’ Midway are almost non-existent. I tackled sneak-a-peek with my oldest child and a friend and her son this year, and the kids didn’t have to wait for any rides, except if the ride was already running when they lined up. The Buckaroos zone was also easy to navigate with less-than-usual crowds and the kids could get into bouncy houses or get their faces painted with little waiting. Because it was dinnertime when we arrived, the worst heat of the day was behind us. The time we did spend outdoors was mostly pleasant and bearable with the aid of a simple sun hat.
Maybe the greatest offering of Stampede is that there’s something for everyone, no matter the age. I haven’t lost my love affair with the event, we’ve just had to adjust it to accommodate our family. The diversity of activities mean I can hopefully enjoy it for another 30-some (ahem) years (hello beer gardens, goodbye kiddie roller coaster!