A Summerfest veteran offers his top tips for festival newbies.
A Summerfest newbie from Colorado joined me for Summerfest 2019 opening day, and I gave him the crash course in doing Summerfest like a native Milwaukeean.
PRO TIP 1: Check the admission deals of the day.
First, I made Erick speed walk a mile from his hotel to the Summerfest grounds, stopping at a convenience store on Wisconsin Avenue to buy 3 cans of soup to donate so he could get in free. We got in just minutes before 3 p.m., so he saved the $15 normal weekday admission price.
PRO TIP 2: Don’t limit yourself to just the headlining amphitheater acts. The best times are usually not at the amphitheater.
Then, I told Erick that Summerfest was all about the music. So I gave him a quick tour of the grounds pointing out the sparkling new Uline Warehouse stage that looks very Northwoods-like, complete with wooden exterior. It’s also much more open than what it had replaced. I pointed out all the small hippie-like stages along the waterfront path and recounted some good times I had at those over the years. Then I showed him the big amphitheater and recalled a few of the many shows I’ve seen there over the years, like the Rolling Stones, Katy Perry (for my daughters, of course) and Gwen Stefani. I explained how the venue was in the middle of a two-year renovation to accommodate larger productions, like this year’s Jennifer Lopez show.
PRO TIP 3: Don’t just stay at one stage. Move around. Explore. If a band sucks, leave. If a band is bumpin’, stay.
I then gave a quick rundown of all the other stages, which are the best part of Summerfest. I explained the pros and cons of each stage, the sight lines, the noise bleed from other stages, the packed passageways after 10 p.m., and whether the seating is benches, picnic tables or something else. The stages all offer headliners of different varieties – unlike the days of old when the Pabst stage actually featured polkas, Miller had jazz and Schlitz had country. While today all the genres are mixed, and somehow disc jockeys became their own attraction, many of the late-night headlining musicians are quite big names, even for old guys like myself. This year, I have groups like The National and Lake Street Dive on my list. Unfortunately, many, such as those two, play at the same time, so I form a strategy that allows me to see a few songs of each. And I always check out the bands that aren’t on my targeted list – I never know whom or what I might encounter. Sometimes the bands I never heard of are incredible; sometimes it’s best to just pick up the pace as I walk by.
PRO TIP 4: Go to happy hours at bars outside of the gates when you want to drink beer. Remember, you can get a pass to leave the grounds when you exit, but just make sure you return before 7 p.m. to get back in.
Of course, the other half of the successful Summerfest equation besides the music is the beer. Now that major brewery competition has all but been forgotten in Milwaukee, it’s rare to find something that’s not made by the Miller Coors regime. So the big question these days is how much is a beer? As usual, prices vary depending on product and size. A 16-ounce Miller Lite can sells for $8, while the same size Blue Moon sells for $9. I did see $7.75 price for a 16-ounce cup of Coors Light. In years past, I could sometimes find deals at the craft brewery setups like Lakefront Brewery or Water Street Brewery. But I’m sad to say this year those days are over.
BREAKING NEWS: Even the craft beers are now priced similarly. Lakefront Brewery? $9. Water Street Brewery? $9.
Smelling investigative journalism in the works, I approached a bartender at Water Street Brewery and, as I ordered a lager, pointedly asked her: “Is there collusion with beer prices at Summerfest this year?”
“Yes,” she responded flatly, explaining that Summerfest was now running things to make things easier.
“And more expensive,” I pointed out.
“I’m with you on that,” she sighed.
So, no shopping around on beer prices this year, my friends.
PRO TIP 5: See what is being given away and load up.
That leads me to another aspect of Summerfest worth mentioning: There’s plenty of bargains to be had and free stuff to do.
I told Erick this as I urged him to pick up some free Kind Bars. My pocket was already filled with them and, amazingly, I wasn’t hungry the rest of the day. Who needs to buy overpriced hamburgers, sweet corn and roasted chicken, anyway? Then there’s always the usual raffles to win hats, T-shirts, koozies, etc.
PRO TIP 6: Sign up for these new, free kayak and waterboard experiences as soon as you enter the grounds.
Then we went to put our kids (I had brought my daughter and her friend to Milwaukee a few days earlier, while Erick and his daughter arrived for the first day of Summerfest) out on some kayaks. Fortunately, I had signed them up to the free kayaking adventures shortly after we got there and had a 4 p.m. reservation. They were given a safety lesson, outfitted with life jackets, and sent on their way into the Lake Michigan bay inlet that fronts Summerfest. And they stayed out for about 45 minutes. While I watched from the shore, other people were being turned away because all the reservations had been booked solid right away.
PRO TIP 7: Wander the grounds and see what interests you. Just avoid the aggressive guys trying to sell you windows.
Finally, besides all the music, I told Erick to be sure to check out all the other stuff to see. My favorite this year is a small pavilion by the SpeedKore Performance Group, which customizes cars in Grafton, Wisconsin. Several cars, like a $115,000 Mustang GT Convertible and a $189,000 Dodge Speedkore Demon with more than 1,400 horsepower, are on display. I asked if there was a raffle to win one of the cars on display, and the guy from SpeedKore said, “No, but several are for sale.”
As for my friend, he left Summerfest to get something to eat and took the kids with him. He says he was impressed by Summerfest, but something in his tone left me unconvinced
So they left me to watch the “Big Bang” fireworks and listen to bands like Walk the Moon, Judah and the Lion, and even Foreigner, by myself. There’s nothing wrong with that. Some people just don’t get Summerfest. Some people can’t quit it.
Kris Kodrich is a journalism professor at Colorado State University. Having grown up in Milwaukee, Kris has been attending Summerfest since the beginning – 1968, to be exact, when his mom took him as a kid to what eventually became the world’s largest music festival. Kris has been hooked ever since and finds a way to return each summer, now with his own kids.