Review: GLOW Holiday Festival At Minnesota State Fairgrounds Offers A Wintery Taste Of The Fair
Just a few short years ago, holiday light displays and events the size of the Bentleyville Tour of Lights weren't exceedingly common. Now, it seems like every city has their own light tour or festival, making it possible for fans of the season to check out dozens of options during the holiday season.
One such recent addition is the GLOW Holiday Festival at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds, which held its inaugural season in 2020 as a pandemic-friendly drive-through event. For 2021, organizers reimagined their event as a walk-through experience that offers a blend of dazzling lights, prime photo opportunities, activities, and even fair food and beverages.
What to know before you go
The first thing to know about your visit is that buying your tickets ahead of time is really the only way in. Organizers sell tickets exclusively via the GLOW website, where you can purchase adult tickets ($20.75 each), children tickets ($12.75) or group packages for a specific day and time. They also offer VIP tickets for $45-$55 each (price depends on the day). More on that in a second.
I mentioned that you buy tickets for a specific day and time, so you need to plan accordingly. The idea behind the time component is to control the number of people at the event at any given time. You can arrive anytime within the hour you buy your tickets for (buy them for 5 pm, you can enter anytime between 5 and 6, for example). Once you're in, you can stay as long as you want. Their website says most visitors spend 60-90 minutes there. I was there for about 2 hours. I could see how most people stick around for about an hour or two, but I could also see how some people could make an entire evening out of it.
So, what do you get for the VIP price? Their website says you "get a front row pass with special parking and entrance closest to the action. You’ll gain exclusive access to the State Fair Event Center, which includes a cozy lounge, heated full-service bathrooms, and the only private full-service bar at GLOW. You'll also be permitted re-entry if you need to leave for some reason.
I didn't splurge for the VIP experience. General admission parking is free and nearby, but having an exclusive bar and place to warm up sounds like it could be nice. What might be the biggest selling point for some is access to heated, full-service bathrooms. They shut down the rest of the restroom facilities around the fairgrounds in the winter months to prevent pipes from freezing and whatnot. There are plenty of port-a-potties around the fairgrounds, but using one of those in the cold and in the dark might not be the most palatable of experience.
On the note of cold, be sure to dress warm. There are several places you can "warm up" some, but even with that being the case, you're going to want warm winter attire. Warm (snow-ready) boots, gloves, hat, and good coat are must-haves to truly enjoy your visit. Nothing is less fun than being cold when you're trying to have fun!
What you'll experience at GLOW
Going through the entrance, you'll be greeted by a MASSIVE, photo-friendly sign you walk through in order to enter the attraction.
Once inside, you're greeted by what feels like a more laid-back state fair experience of sorts. The footprint of GLOW doesn't encompass the entire state fairgrounds, but it does cover a sizable amount of the real estate. As you walk around, you'll hear fun and festive music coming from a few different "music venues" including a massive "video jukebox" stage and a DJ booth, where I heard this gem for the first time during my visit.
Along with music, you'll catch whiffs of fair food. While Sweet Martha's isn't open (you walk by one of them...tease!), you can get pronto pups, cheese curds, and some other fair favorites along with some winter-themed favorites like hot chocolate and even a gingerbread cookie beer, which is mighty delicious!
The food selection is certainly much smaller than you'd expect for the state fair itself, but with a number of different food trucks and stands around the grounds, you can easily show up hungry and leave full after getting your fair food fix. There are also a number of adult beverage options ranging from beer to wine and beyond that are served most nights, giving you the opportunity to have a fun date night or friends night out.
Adding to the state fair feel, there is a special winter version of the famous state fair slide. For the winter version, you ride down a taller and snow-covered slide aboard a tube. Definitely worth taking a ride or two!
Additionally, the famous sky glider is fired up for the winter season, offering the opportunity to catch a glimpse of the entire GLOW grounds from above.
At the heart of the GLOW Holiday festival, though, are the light displays. While the displays aren't as concentrated around the grounds as they would be at an event like Bentleyville, they do offer some super cool photo opportunities.
One of them, a mock-up of the famous Ferris Wheel, also happens to be sitting right next to a bunch of really fun light-up teeter-totters. I guarantee regardless of how old you are, you'll have a blast.
Similar to a number of other light displays around the region, GLOW features a big tree that sort of anchors the whole light display. It certainly doesn't compare to the sheer size of the famous Bentleyville tree, but it does stand out as one of the more eye-catching displays as you scan the grounds.
If your core desire to visit is just for light displays, you'll notice that there is plenty to see, but things are far more spread out. Unlike attractions that focus just on the light show experience, GLOW has clusters of different things spread out, giving you the opportunity to walk around with your pronto pup and beverage of choice without being shoulder-to-shoulder between light displays. If you're looking for that truly "surrounded by lights" experience though, worry not!
You can venture into areas like the Enchanted Forest, where you'll be totally enveloped in twinkling lights and great lighting for those festive holiday selfies.
Some of the other activities/highlights include things the "Reindeer Run" light maze, a chance to visit Santa, and heated igloos around the fairgrounds where you can dodge out of the cold and enjoy your food, beverage, or just a good conversation with the rest of the people in your group.
It's hard to encapsulate every detail, but there's plenty to see and do for a couple hours without question.
In "reviewing" the GLOW Holiday Festival, the first thing I would point out is that it isn't like other holiday light displays. Comparing it to something like Bentleyville is sort of like comparing apples to oranges. They both offer tons of cool holiday light displays and festive charm, but they're still very different.
Bentleyville and others like it are "light tours", where you mostly tour through a series of light displays and maybe make a stop for a treat or to stand by a fire for a bit. I absolutely enjoy those types of attractions (I've been to a good handful this season alone). GLOW, on the other hand, is less of a tour and more of a venue to hang out with friends or family and enjoy food, drink, and activities all while also taking in cool light displays. There isn't a sense of bustle or a feeling of "touring" something. It is more of a festive gathering place, which fits their motto "The Great Minnesota Holiday Get-Together".
I'd give the GLOW Holiday Festival a 4 out of 5 Christmas stockings. It offers a unique take on the holiday attraction universe, infusing elements of the Minnesota State Fair into the overall experience. The light displays are gorgeous, the food and drink options are on-point, and the overall experience is fun, but it certainly feels like a second-year event. I can't quite put my finger on it, but something feels like there is room to grow into something more.
Thinking about revisitability, this is easily something a person could go to more than once and still have fun. Between the food and drink options and the different theme nights (which I really didn't even get into), there is enough to make this something a person could visit more than once in a season. The only prohibitive factor might be the roughly $20 per visit you'd be spending, versus a number of other attractions that are either free or offer lower admission costs.
This is just one of 26 awesome holiday light displays and festivals across Minnesota & Wisconsin highlighted by my coworker Jeanne. Along with GLOW, I can give my personal seal of approval to others like Sam's Christmas Village, the Sertoma Winter Wonderland, and (of course) Bentleyville. Check out the whole list below!