In keeping with Austin’s family-friendly spirit, the Austin City Limits Music Festival has always allowed kids ages 10 and under to come free with a paying adult. The allure of a family experience (coupled with not paying a sitter $80 an afternoon) leads many parents to give it a try. But before the whole family treks out to Zilker Park, are you ready for the ACL family experience?
If your family is tackling ACL, rolling into the weekend on light sleep is a recipe for disaster. If at all possible, have your kiddos down and asleep by 7:30 the evening prior to preserve maximum energy (and good attitudes) for the festival day. Don’t cheat yourself on sleep, either!
Bringing a pair of noise reducing ear protectors for each child is a must. Loud music can be both painful and scary for them, so order earmuffs on Amazon or check with you favorite local retailer. They're not expensive and they are important. While you're at it, grab a pair of earplugs for yourself and prevent a week of post-fest ringing.
Some children relish a long walk, but others wilt in the heat. If your kiddos are smaller or have lower energy levels, remember that strollers are permitted by the festival. They may not always be convenient, but much like Disney World, they can be the difference between departing in the early afternoon or making it to 7 pm.
Chef David Bull has taken his two youngest children (currently 8 and 4) to ACL in recent years and offers the following tips. “We packed each child their own small backpack filled with water bottles, some light snacks and games. Treat it like a picnic! You can set up camp under a shade tree if you arrive early. We even brought them small pillows so they could rest between shows.”
Expecting a 7-year-old to hang patiently through a full Pearl Jam set is unlikely. While fun, your festival experience will be different than attending with a bunch of friends, because the kids will likely be more interested in learning how the festival works and looking at the audience. It’s worth a talk with your spouse, partner or friends to decide whether bringing kids is the right move.
ACL offers a booth called “Tag-A-Kid” which pairs your contact information with a numbered wristband on your child’s arm. In the unfortunate event you lose track of each other, the festival’s staff can find you via text or call when your child asks for help. Festival veteran Jordan Scott offers up a more direct approach: “Sharpie your cell number onto each kid’s arm — but not their name! You can also pick a tree or a booth to meet at in the event you get lost.”
Crowds are lightest during the first few hours of each festival day, which is often the ideal time for kid music-viewing. They’ll have better sight lines and room to roam, you’ll be jostled far less, and they’ll still have energy. Look for your early day favorites and plan to catch a few. Just remember, you may not last for Beck or Belle and Sebastian.
The festival doesn’t just list participating restaurants on the food pages, it actually puts the entire menu for each vendor online. This makes is quite easy to pick out the booths your kids will like, which can simplify meal times. Remember to take advantage of off-peak hours (1 pm to 4 pm) for shorter lines.
Whether you’ve taken your kids before or not, you’ve likely seen the “Austin Kiddie Limits” area on the festival grounds. This is the epicenter of child activity in the park. In addition to hosting four kid-friendly bands daily, the area also has a lemonade stand, a pottery painting station, a drum zone for hands-on music and an art mural wall. There’s also “Rock Star Video Karaoke” from Arts + Labor and a craft zone. Your kids will love this, just don’t introduce them to the area 10 minutes before your favorite band starts!
Having survived weather conditions from dustbowl to flooding, the ACL organizers understand that keeping their guests hydrated is critical to the event’s success. They have three CamelBak filling stations placed around the park for free water bottle refills, as well as plenty of paid water for purchase around the park. Bring a canteen or water bottle for each family member — it will save you money and greatly reduce festival waste.
Make fun memories
There’s a Bill Murray Photo Booth available near the ACL Art Market, which seems like an easy victory for goofy family fun. You can also head to the Waterloo Records tent and let your children meet an artist and get an autograph or (sometimes) a photo with them.
When you push the kids past their limits, the person who really suffers is you. If you have multi-day passes, consider setting up a pick-up with a sitter in the evening so you can enjoy the headliners in peace. This will require some walking on your part, but the logistics of getting back into the festival is worth the hassle to get the kids home and you to the headliner you've been waiting for.