Sleep with Airplanes: Taking Kids to EAA "Oshkosh" Airventure
Tips for Attending EAA Airventure "Oshkosh" with Kids
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If you've ever been a part of the aviation community, you have probably heard of EAA's fly in, Airventure, in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Held yearly, Airventure - or "Oshkosh" as it is fondly known by most - is the biggest fly-in of it's kind, boasting over 10,000 aircraft, around 3,000 show planes, and an estimated 200-300,000 person attendance. It's a little insane and a whole lot of fun.
It's also some of the safest and best festival camping for families you could dream up... so regardless of how much you know about airplanes, consider putting this adventure on your list!
Camping at Oshkosh is the best way to experience the show. Camp Scholler is a pop up camp (only open for Airventure) full of every time of camper, tent, RV, campervans, and hammock you can imagine. It boasts grocery stores, wifi hotspots, shower/bath houses, and plenty of well maintained port-a-johns.
You'll need to stay a minimum of 3 days and at least one person will need to be an EAA member - but you'll want to stay the whole week, so go big and start with at least a day one arrival. If you can swing it, arriving a day or two early allows you more choices of spots - first come, first serve - however, last year we were way out in the quickly built overflow section, and we couldn't have been happier. In fact, it's likely a bit quieter and more low key further out, and with buses continually running to provide optional transit to the grounds and around camp, it's not a big deal.
No matter where you end up, you'll likely find friendly neighbors willing to either give you space or invite you to the campfire, as you prefer, and you'll wake up to the sound of aircraft overhead.
Riding solo with kids? While things are always easier with an extra hand, we did great last year. I roadtripped out and back and stayed the full week at Airventure with my three girls, then ages 2.5, 5.5, and 8.5 (those half a year bits make a big difference in how they handle situations and how much they can do on their own!)
Here's our tips for making the most of Oshkosh with kids!
This deserves a post of its own but in brief: Kidventure is Airventure's program designed to immerse kids in aeronautics and aviation - the main program is split into A&P and Flight. A&P stands for Airframe and Powerplant, or the hands on mechanics of aircraft and flight. Here kids will do everything from riveting and sewing to learning the parts of the engine, troubleshooting, and safety wiring. In the flight section, young attendees learn and practice air travel control, complete preflight inspections, and get their hands on the controls of a simulator. Older kids who put in the time can earn flight simulator and A&P credit. All kids who complete the required amounts of activities can earn a pin or badge and, while supplies last, a real tool kit and flight bag! Not to be missed is the Space section where kids can do all kinds of cool things which include pouring molten metal and taking a quick trip in a replica of the Mercury 7 space ship. And there's more ... from Ham radio to Tuskegee Airmen to simulated Mars landings... most adults could spend all week here making their childhood dreams come true.
There's also bathrooms, water, food stands, and a bus to and from the main grounds.
The crew at Kidventure really pour their hearts into it and it shows - they're great with all ages - while our then 8 and 5 year old needed varying amounts of extra help through activities, and our 2 year old napped or explored or colored balsa wood aircraft, I watched tweens and older teens work hard to complete the same activities at their level, some clearly confident old hats and some new comers, unsure if they'd even be into it at first but quickly swept up. It's impossible not to fall for the appeal of aviation while at Kidventure, which is exactly the point. Don't miss it.
Be prepared for weather: some years it's glorious perfection - just the right temps, no mud, little rain. But other years have seen thunderstorms, lots of mud, or extreme heat or cold. We prepared for all of it without overdoing it - there's always the option to drive out and grab something in town if needed. Keep in mind prices at local big box stores often reflect the tourist season demand, and hotel rooms are at a premium and typically booked early - so don't count on just grabbing one if storms come in fast! We rented a Ford Explorer which, with carseats jumbled in the front, allowed us to jump in the back on top of a foam pad and sleep through one night of harder storms. We could have lasted in the tent but with anxious little ones, the option to camp in the car was a good safety for us. With that in mind, bring good stakes!
Blankets, light sweaters, and rain jackets are all must haves - it gets cold in the wee hours of the morning even in warmer years. We brought our raingear sets for the kids in case any adventures warranted it.
You can cook on a camp stove or build a fire at your campsite, but because campsites are small it's often a nice win to build in the middle of a few campsites. Check with your potential neighbors as you scout spots or just ask once you're there. We ended up with a shared spot and it was used both for communal evening fires and individually as folks needed.
Remember that getting around takes time - and even more so with kids. We spent very little time at the campsite, and the bigger blocks of time were preplanned to spend with new friends for dinner or mornings we opted to hang out longer because everyone was happy doing just that. Most nights by the time we hit the tent and got changed, the kids were out cold.
Bathing & Potty
There are plenty of well maintained porta johns and older kids will quickly get the routine. For hand sanitizing, we use a kid-friendly alcohol free spray which seems to hold up better in the heat (and in toddler hands) then gels.
The bathhouses see lighter traffic further from the airshow entrance - and we aim for that, but you can also quickly see when high traffic times are and adjust accordingly. Bring a bag for clothes and toiletries, and use open sandals like Keens that do double duty around camp and in the bath house.
Essentials to Pack
- Headsets and earplugs - hearing protection is critical at airshows - it gets loud and not just during daily and night time airshows. Shop our collection of youth and infant headsets here, but if you arrive without, you can purchase both kids and adult hearing protection at the official merchandise stores on airshow grounds.
- Rain Jackets - lighter weight is better for hauling, but we didn't take our rain jackets daily. With the exception of a dry bag for keys, camera, and cell phone, we risked it unless we knew storms were coming and kept our jackets at camp. The EAA app and text alerts are available to give you the best heads up on incoming weather. You never know what Oshkosh week will bring, but there seems to be a storm or two just about every year - so be prepared! Shop our selection of rain jackets here.
- Lights - Pick your own assortment, just make sure you have something for late night port-a-john runs! We brought headlamps and extra batteries, but if buying new, look for newer USB rechargeable headlamp like this one. We also used these lights inside the tent or vehicle, which also happen to hang perfectly on the toilet door chain.
- Hydration Packs - Hydration packs help give kids responsibility for their own bodies, but also help lighten your load. Pick a brand but stay hydrated. Fill these up each day on the way to and from the show grounds. There are water fill stations at the bath houses and stores, and you can grab the bus nearby if you wish! If you're shopping en route (and there are lots of shops in the city of Oshkosh) a women's cycling hydration pack is a good bet for smaller kids (5 and up).
- Wagon and Umbrella - with miles of ground to cover and lots to haul, a wagon was our go-to. Could you use a stroller? Sure, but the wagon held everything we needed, allowed even the biggest kid to nap if needed, and fairly easily folded for trips on the bus. We were also comfortable leaving it in places if needed. We wound battery powered lights around our wagon for visibility returning to our campsite at night.
- Chair - Full size camp chairs are perfect back at camp (be sure to secure them so they don't blow away while you're gone!). For hauling each day and airshow watching, go with something lightweight and portable like this backpacking chair.
- Toys for Airshow Waits - night airshows get packed quickly as everyone nabs a spot on the grass with blankets, chairs, and food. Waiting for the airshow might be a nice break for tired adult legs, but little ones enjoy having something on hand for "in place" play. We packed a small pile of our WayToPlay roads which doubled as airstrips, a few cars, and for a special nights - glowsticks. Kids came over constantly to play with our WaytoPlay road setup! We always discuss glowstick etiquette before unboxing - once the show starts, glow sticks stay down low so everyone can enjoy the show!
- Charger - There are stations where you can turn your electronics in for charging and pickup by the end of the day (not the end of the night airshow), however, it's a lot easier to have the ability to charge your own device and then just leave the battery pack or power bank at the station to recharge. Not a necessity but a bonus!
- Hats / UV Protection - Sun damage is real and with little to block the sun, you're going to be out in it a lot. We usually take two hats per kid - a baseball type cap and a wide brim - so they have choices. Keep in mind sun coverage and consider two wide brimmed hats if you want to lessen sunscreen dependency! Don't forget sunglasses, preferably with a band to keep them from blowing away or getting left behind.
- Soft Structured Carrier - Little legs tire fast, and crowds are tough. Night airshows run well past preschooler bedtimes. Boarding buses with tired kids is tricky. Need more reasons? Just bring the carrier, you'll be glad you did. Shoulder rides are cool, but if you are there for a week, you're going to be doing a lot of hauling. Make it easier on yourself with a well fitted carrier - we love both Tula and Beco brand carriers in both Infant/Standard and Toddler sizes, which hold up to 60lbs or more and prevent feet-dragging, over-tired kiddos. Look for summer mesh versions for a cooler and quicker drying option.
- Wipes - Pack wipes even if you're past the wipe stage - they always come in handy camping, especially since treats tend to happen (here's looking at you, free donuts...) Oh yeah, there's sometimes free donuts if you hit the camp store right at closing time. You're welcome. Which brings us to...
We did not eat as much as or in the same way as I anticipated at Oshkosh. I had envisioned meals of hot-dogs and beans around the campfire nightly followed by the ultimate cool-mom treat of s'mores... but what actually happened was a bit different: if we dilly dallied, it was in the morning. Once we left camp, we typically didn't come back until late, the kids would change and crawl in bed and by the time I got in the tent, they'd be out cold. Yes, folks, it's that easy!
What we did eat: nut butter & jelly sandwiches, snack food and granola bars - basically anything that would last in the heat. We packed a snack container with sandwich halves each morning and if we ran out of all of our packed snacks, we just winged it from there - either planning an early return to camp and a big dinner or grabbing food out at the show. While airshow food can certainly blow your budget fast, there are some great options that work perfectly as an add-on to your "pack it in" plan.
We made plans to eat out twice. First, at the ultralight night show and STOL competition. This one is all the way down the field and options are limited. Your EAA membership (required for camping anyway) will help score you a deal with the "members meal", and between generous servings and good distractions, kids can easily share. Our second planned eating out was at the sea plane base. Absolutely worth the bus trip ($3 cash per person, kids on laps tend to be given a smile and free passage) and time off the main sight, the sea plane base is a calmer, small scale version of Oshkosh on water. If your child is over 30lbs (and able to wear a Coast Guard approved child's life vest) you can enjoy a free boat tour of the many sea planes docked at Oshkosh. There's a food service venue on site.
You can plug things in at the bathrooms, right outside under a little overhang. It's perfect, and if you leave your cell phone there for an hour before it registers that you've left it there... you're kid can run back solo and find it still sitting there, which is testimony to the atmosphere that makes Camp Scholler a pretty amazing place. Not that this happened to us, of course....
On show grounds, you can also plug in around various buildings - you'll see folks hanging out around outlets, so pull up a chair and join the conversation - or you can drop electronics at the charging hut for pickup later.
Planning Your Day
Plan to not plan. There's no way to hit everything, even in a week, unless you're really pushing. Go at your pace and take in everything where you end up. Hit the airshows. Talk to people when you're waiting around. Listen to stories and laugh a bit.
Aim to hit these things and fill in around with hanging out and casual exploring:
* Two days at Kidventure with possible return for airshows or special events (older kids may want more time here)
* Half day at seaplane base
* Both night airshows and one ultralight night show
* Camp fire night / smores
If you can keep your schedule flexible you'll be able to work with new found interests and new friends or spur of the moment campground hangouts as they come! For older kids or families with extra hands, there are courses and classes and volunteer opportunities to consider too!
Lots of walking. Late nights. Noise. Kids who learn to watch the sky for smoke smiles and anxious readers who excitedly sound out sky writing all day long. Airplane everything. And helicopters. Tired kids. Dirty feet. And the best week ever.
What do you think? Is EAA Airventure on your list? Have you already been or are you headed there this year? Tell us in the comments below!