camping,  Outdoor recreation

50+ Ways to Have Summer Fun on a Budget In and Around Champaign-Urbana –

Plenty of free and low-cost ways to have fun in Champaign-Urbana this summer

Get out of the house and have a blast with your kids in Champaign, Urbana and many other Central Illinois communities, all while staying on a budget

Do you feel your bank account draining these days? We do! In many ways, summer can be the most expensive time of the year for Champaign-Urbana families. Parents are looking for things for their kids to do that are fun, active, and won’t break the bank. Or maybe your entire summer budget is going toward summer camp while you work and you’re looking for inexpensive things to do when you have a day off. Whatever the reason, we have lots of ideas for you on how to have summer fun on a budget in Champaign-Urbana.

Of course, many events are on our calendar DAILY.

50+ Ways to Have Summer Fun on a Budget in Champaign-Urbana thanks The Land Connection for presenting this list.

50+ Ways to Have Summer Fun on a Budget in Champaign-Urbana

Completely free

1. Read books, get freebies: If your kids can read — or if you read to them — you can be eligible for freebies around the area, or prizes depending on the summer reading program. For example, Champaign Public Library has all kinds of things (there are always lots of coupons for free food in Champaign-Urbana) on the docket for this year’s prizes.

2. Free movies (during the day): Savoy 16 is bringing back free movies during the day this summer and now showing TWO movies on TWO screens.

3. Free outdoor movies (at night)Movies are extra fun when they’re a) outside and b) happening after bedtime. Outdoor summer movie season is here and we have a list of all of the upcoming flicks and where to find them. Most are free.

Movie on the Quad
People gather under the night sky during the Summer Quad Cinema Series at the University of Illinois.

4. Free outdoor concerts: Champaign-Urbana loves its free music, especially in the summer. Our advice: pack a picnic, a blanket, and some games or toys for the kids.

5. Prairie Farm:  From turtles to rabbits to goats to sheep to pigs, there’s plenty of Old McDonald to sing here. Open every day from 1-7 p.m. with the petting zoo open from 3-5 p.m.; this is a program of the Champaign Park District and is located in the Centennial Park complex. Remember your closed toe shoes to enter the petting zoo.

Welcome to Children's Prairie Farm in Champaign, IL

6. Hessel Park Waterplay Splash Pad: Is it a Splash Pad or a Spray Park? No matter what you call it, this community favorite is an old standby. When you don’t feel like going to the pool, this is a great option — and TOTALLY FREE. Hours are 10 a.m.-7 p.m.

7. Douglass Park Splash Pad: This spray park in Douglass Park is similar to Hessel Park’s pad. The water is on from 10 a.m to 7 p.m. daily. Free. Another great Champaign Park District amenity. Check out one mom’s review

8. Homer Lake Natural Playscape: When you want to take up creek stomping and don’t know where to begin, this is a great place to visit. “The idea behind this sort of place is to let the wild ones run free and do what they do best – create, explore, get dirty, wet and muddy, throw rocks and sticks into the water, sort out the social hierarchy without adult interference and in general just be kids.”

9. Go Creek Stomping:  Venture beyond Homer and find other ways to get wet outside … in a creek! The idea behind creek stomping is to get wet and enjoy nature – at the same time. And maybe even see some wildlife. Bring some rain boots or water shoes.

10. Museum of the Grand Prairie: This museum in Mahomet’s Lake of the Woods is free. So many of the historical exhibits are interactive. You’ll walk out feeling smarter, too.

Museum of the Grand Prairie

11. Eastern Illinois Baseball League: Eastern Illinois Baseball is one of the oldest sports traditions in East Central Illinois and will play again this season. An amateur league, it’s free to attend. Games are played in Buckley (north of Paxton). Find more info here.

12. Fourth of July fun: Fourth of July is coming! The fun around the Champaign-Urbana metro starts at the end of June and goes through the holiday, and most of it is free. We have an article for Fourth of July broadly as well as a guide just to fireworks shows.

13. Visit Japan House, the Arboretum and IDEA Garden: One of the most beautiful places in our midst and it’s right under our noses. The house doesn’t need to be open to take in the beautiful Japanese gardens, as you can stroll any time. And just next “door” is the Arboretum and the IDEA Garden, a living “laboratory” of beauty. Great place for family photos, too.

14. Farmers Market fun: Many area farmers markets offer more than simply picking up produce. Kids love to help pick out items, and perhaps grab a treat while listening to some live music.

15. Visit Allerton Park: We’re lucky enough to have this gem — named by Huffington Post as the most underrated tourist destination in Illinois — in our backyard. Entry is free; go hiking, check out the formal gardens, hunt for the sculptures, have a picnic or grab a bite at the Greenhouse Cafe.

Statue and peonies at Allerton

16. Krannert Art Museum: Another great place to cool off and learn something. Campus is quiet, but the museums are open! Although a donation is requested, it is optional.

17. Spurlock Museum: Much like Krannert, you can cool off and learning something here. Donations requested, but optional here, too. Get the scoop on when you can visit.

18. Free Summer Meals for kids: Summer can be a prime time for kids to go hungry. Area locations are offering free lunches and some breakfasts for children 0-18, no questions asked. Many of these opportunities are expanded due to additional funding presently.

19. Parks, Parks, Parks: Exploring new parks is constant entertainment for kids. They love something new, and you could probably visit a new one almost every day of the summer.

Mullikin Park

20. Monticello Railway Museum:  In our experience, the only fees charged at MRM are to ride the trains between downtown Monticello and the museum campus on the outskirts of town. There’s plenty to see and do there; if your kids don’t care about taking a ride, take them over there to get up close and personal with trains and learn about the history of train travel in our area. And the rides aren’t terribly expensive if you choose to do so.

21. Curtis Orchard: Could it almost be time for Curtis Orchard to open? Just a few more weeks. Picking season takes a little longer, but the goats will be out and the cider donuts will be in the oven. Opening day is July 20, according to its website.

Cuddle kittens at Curtis Orchard.

22. Special library events: In summer, our local libraries come to life. Visit one that’s new to you; some have indoor play spaces (and free A/C.) Champaign Public Library is a popular choice among Champaign-Urbana families. That being said, many of the libraries in the smaller towns around C-U are not to be ignored; they have robust programming calendars, too. Plenty of options for school-age kids in addition to the younger tots. No matter, they are all on our calendar.

23. Parades: If you’ve read Chambanamoms for a long time, you’ll know that we are OBSESSED with parades. Why not? They’re free!

24.  Learn to fish: Kaufman Lake is among the venues that offer free fishing lessons. Equipment is provided but you must register in advance. If you’d like to venture out on your own, we have a list of places to try.

Child fishing at Lake of the Woods in Mahomet

25. Bike along the Kickapoo Rail Trail, and others: When you’re biking as a family, you probably have two goals for your journey: somewhere out of the way of major traffic, and somewhere that’s not too strenuous for little peddlers. We take you to some of our favorite riding spots in the area.

26. Have a picnic! Kids begging to eat out of the house? Pack up the basket and head outdoors, changing up your feeding routine — without having to pay for a restaurant. There are so many great places to eat outdoors in our community. We have a list of favorite spots.

27. See one of the lesser known museums in Champaign County: Folks have fallen in love with the Champaign County History Museum.

28. Anita Purves Nature Center: One of our favorite places in the summer to watch birds or take a walk in the woods. Bonus: Friendship Grove Nature Playscape or a walk through Busey Woods.

Meet a snake at Anita Purves
Meet a snake at Anita Purves Nature Center.

29. Volunteer with your family: Do you have some time on your hands? Want to get involved in the community? Want to feel good? Start a family volunteering project. We’ve got plenty of ideas, or add your own.

30. Outdoor art: We’ve got tons of wonderful outdoor art in Champaign-Urbana from sculpture to statues. We’ve even shown you where some of our favorites are, so there’s no excuse not to start exploring.

Champaign Urbana Chambana Meadowbrook Park
The sculptures at Urbana’s Meadowbrook Park are entertainment all their own.

31. Take a hike: Different than a walk, hikes will take you into the woods and off the beaten path, so to speak (though near Champaign-Urbana, we have a lot of beautifully paved paths you can hike). Nonetheless, find out how and where to start hiking near town with a handy legend showing you the varying levels of difficulty you’ll encounter.

32. Explore campus: Never step foot on central campus? Don’t let another summer pass you by without taking your kids over there – SO. MUCH. TO. SEE. We have guides to hanging out on the Quad and favorite places to eat. Go in the evenings after 5, and there’s even plenty of places to park for free.

33. Head to the zoo: Scovill Zoo in Decatur offers its Thursdays free promotion again this summer and other favorites like Miller Park and Peoria are ready for you, too (no free days we know of at those two, though).

Scovill Zoo Train
Scovill Zoo Train. The zoo is free on Thursdays during the summer; the train costs a few dollars per person.

Low-cost ideas

34. Fairs and Festivals: Check out our roundup of all fairs and festivals we know of throughout East Central Illinois. Many of them are free or have low-cost entry fees. To save money while you’re at the fairs, attend on nights when there’s a special such as an unlimited bracelet for carnival rides. Also, if you don’t want to spend money on fair food, most allow you to bring your own. We hope there are freebie times at the Champaign County Fair in July, and we’ll have all the details when they announce.

35. Go on the Champaign-Urbana ice cream trail: Summer is the season for frozen treats. See how many you can tick off of our list. If you like food trails, we also have them for donutscheese curdsburgersbarbecuepizza, and more. Find them ALL here.

36. Discount day at Crystal Lake Family Aquatic Center: After 4 p.m. (every day) and all day Tuesday, get into this Urbana water park for a discount rate — price is $6 resident/$9 non-resident, saving a couple dollars per person versus other times.

Main activity pool at Crystal Lake Park Family Aquatic Center

37. Amtrak to Chicago: If you’re looking to save money when you go to Chicago, consider taking Amtrak. Depending on the train you take, it can be as little as $14 one way. A child rides for half price with a paying adult (one child per adult). Parking overnight at a downtown hotel can run $45 or more a night, FYI. Check out free museum days in Chicago while you are there. 

Amtrak Champaign

38. Play miniature golf: The two 18-hole golf courses at Old Orchard Links in Savoy are now open. Here’s a tip: the more games you buy, the cheaper it is.

39. Danville Dans discount nights: Everything is $2 on Tuesdays during Danville Dans home games including tickets, beer, soda and hot dogs.

40. Kids Eat Free deals: Take the family for dinner and don’t worry about breaking any proverbial banks. If you see a deal that we don’t have, let us know! These are usually kids-eat-free with the purchase of an adult meal (hence, we put them under the low-cost section of this guide, not the completely free section).

41. Pick your own fruit: Strawberries and blueberries each have their seasons; later on this summer, look for apples in area orchards.

42. Check out auto racing in Farmer City: Dirt track auto racing is back in action at Farmer City Raceway. Events are Friday night, and kids 12 and under are free for general admission; adults are $12. There are also pit passes available for a fee.

43. Try a new pool, find dealsMany of the area pools offer discounts at different times.

Lap pool at Sholem Aquatic Center

44.Go to the drive-in:  One of the hottest summer activities this year is to go to the Harvest Moon Drive-in in Gibson City. Our on-a-budget tip: Bring your own food. You have to pay $5 for the right, but it will save you money in the end. And just because you pay for the food pass doesn’t mean you’re banned from the snack counter!

45. Discount day at Sholem Aquatic Center: After 4 p.m. daily and all day Friday, get into the Champaign water park for a discount rate.

46. Go bowling at the Illini Union: One of the best kept secrets in our community, especially if you weren’t a student at U of I. The Rec Room is open all summer. Check out its specials (during the day Monday through Thursday), among other summer deals.

47. Go on a float trip: It’s a heck of a lot cheaper than renting a boat. The folks at Kickapoo Adventures offer float trips starting at $13 for adults and $8 for kids.

48. Family camping: If a grand vacation isn’t in your budget, make it happen by going camping nearby. Camp sites can go as little as $10 a night. Need equipment? Borrow some from friends or find a rental. We can tell you where to check.

49. Youth musical theatre events: Tis the season for summer youth theatre performances. Not free, but these tickets are usually pretty reasonable — and kids love to see other kids perform. Productions for students entering grades 3-12 are on the docket. Check our calendar for performance times when it gets closer.

50. Visit the IDEA Store and get crafting: Even if you’re not addicted to Pinterest, there’s plenty of fun stuff to be had at the IDEA Store — for pennies on the dollar. Inspire your kids’ creativity, and your own! While this isn’t free, it is nearly free.

51. Play Footgolf: Is it soccer? Is it golf? It’s really a combination. It’s fun, family-friendly, and it will even get you a whole bunch of steps – if that’s your jam. Head out to Lake of the Woods Golf Course in Mahomet to try it out. See our Foot Golf review here.  Tip: Save $1 by bringing your own soccer ball.

52. Paddle, kayak, boat and more: Many of these opportunities are more budget-friendly than you’d imagine. Example: Paddleboats at Lake of the Woods or Crystal Lake Park.

53. Play disc golf too! See our post to find out where local courses can be found.

Some ideas on day trips you can take with your family, many of which are on a budget:

Get ready for summer in Champaign-Urbana:

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