I survived Navy Pier during the Chicago Air and Water Show

Whenever we drive down Lake Shore Drive and Navy Pier comes into view my boy asks, “When are we going to go on that Ferris Wheel?” I always say something non-committal like “Someday.” This has been going on for years. Literally years. Well, my husband and I finally fulfilled that promise, but it involved going to Navy Pier on one the craziest weekends of the year for the Chicago lakefront: The Chicago Air and Water Show. Surprisingly, we all survived. In fact, we had a lot of fun.

Like most Chicago residents, we tend to avoid Navy Pier. We know there are some nice things there, but we also know that much of it is basically an overcrowded mall. Sure, there is the Children’s Museum, but between our other museum memberships and the fact that the kids each go there once a year for school field trips we have no guilt about never going there.

The guilt surrounding this long-promised Ferris Wheel ride was something different though. I told myself that this would be the year that we made good on that promise, but the summer has been flying by. Suddenly it is August, and the Ferris Wheel remained unridden. My procrastination tendencies reminded me that we could still ride the Ferris Wheel in fall or even winter. The rest of me reminded myself that I should get my boy on that Ferris Wheel.

Early last week my husband and I started talking about weekend plans. My son had a birthday party to go to on Saturday afternoon, which killed the idea of any all day activities, but we could do a family outing in the morning. We decided that this would be a good day to finally ride the Ferris Wheel. This seemed like a very good plan.

This seemed like a very good plan until Thursday, when I could hear jets flying over my office building. Oh, shit. It’s Air and Water Show weekend. Not the best time to do anything along the lakefront.

My son heard the jets too. He wanted to see the Air and Water Show.


I hate crowds under the best of circumstances, but stationary crowds in 90 degree heat with a four-year-old and a six-year-old at least one of which would become instantly hot, hungry, and annoyed by the noise of being in close proximity jet engines sounded like a circle of hell I had done nothing to deserve. No.

On Saturday morning my husband and I were talking about what to do that day. No promises had been made the kids, so it would be easy to change our plans, but we did want to get out and do something.

In a surprising role reversal of ambitious parenting it was my husband who said, “Fuck it. Let’s just do Navy Pier.”

We still didn’t want to commit to the kids. What if there was a mile long line of cars waiting to park there? If it seemed too crazy we clung to plausible deniability of our destination. We could still make an abrupt inland turn and just head for a playground.

Despite the repeated question of “Where are we going?” We managed to get the kids dressed and in the car.

As we drove south on Lake Shore Drive we saw the stationary cars stuck in northbound exit ramps trying to get to the beaches. My husband and I looked at each other as we sped toward what appeared to be our worst idea ever.

The exit to Navy Pier is always frustrating, and there were many people laden with beach chairs and strollers further obstructing traffic. Why were we doing this?

We followed a slow trail of cars into a surprisingly half empty parking lot. We paused for bathroom breaks and to lather the kids with sunscreen then we walked outside and headed toward the rides.

Navy Pier was unbelievably empty.

Perhaps there were more people inside in the mall portion. Perhaps the parking crowds were all there to board boats to watch the Air and Water Show. For whatever reason the Pier Park portion of Navy Pier was barely inhabited.

We bought out tickets and started with the Ferris Wheel. After only a short wait we were riding in our gondola enjoying a view of the city, the lake, and some of the Air Show planes.

Both kids then went on Lighthouse. This is how empty Navy Pier was: The ride in progress when we got in line had only one kid on it. One. When it was my kids’ turn they had the whole ride to themselves.

My son was tall enough to ride the Wave Swinger, but my daughter was not. She and I rode the carousel while my son and husband rode the big kid ride. Then we had a funnel cake break. Then my son and I went on Wave Swinger while my daughter rode the Lighthouse again.

From the Wave Swinger my son and I could watch some of the planes flying in formation. We watched a little bit more of the Air and Water Show when we were back on the ground. Then we headed home.

Maybe the best time to go to Navy Pier is during the Chicago Air and Water Show. Maybe we just got lucky. Either way, our visit to Navy Pier was far from the nightmare I anticipated. It was actually a lot of fun. We fulfilled our Ferris Wheel promise and saw enough of the Air and Water show to satiate my boy’s curiosity about it. It was a very good morning.

Still, it was quite expensive, which is one reason I don’t expect to be back at Navy Pier anytime soon even though my son’s question has already evolved to “When can we go on the Ferris Wheel again?”

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