The Skyride at the MN State Fair: A Fun Look at the Icon

skyride minnesota state fair

At the Minnesota State Fair, there’s an unsung hero.

While the food and events get all the flashy credit, there’s one iconic ride that silently sets the mood for all 12 days of the Great Minnesota Get-Together.

Among all the chaos, the Skyride – the fair’s historic gondola – silently floats over the midway. Its festive colors and undeniable charm help shuttle thousands of visitors on a scenic tour of the fair, every day.

So, what’s the story on the fair’s historic centerpiece?

If you’ve ever wanted to know all of our Skyride’s trivia (including, the money maker – it’s shocking annual earnings!) then this post is for you!

But first, The Skyride vs. The SkyGlider

skyride gondola chairs
The Skyride
skyglider chairlift chairs
The SkyGlider

It’s worth noting that this page is all about the Sky Ride, not to be confused with the Sky Glider.

What’s the difference?

Well, both are famous chairlifts at the Minnesota State Fair, but…

  • The Skyride is the gondola that runs from The Blue Barn to the AgHort building. It’s got that super-cool retro sign, and is a State Fair centerpiece as it passes by the Grandstand and over The Giant Slide.
  • The SkyGlider is the chairlift that runs from the North End to the Butterfly House. And it’s best known for… being the ride that people throw their underwear off as it passes over the Little Farm Hands building. (Seriously!)

The easiest way to tell the two apart? The Skyride is recognized by its enclosed cabins, while the SkyGlider is the one where your feet dangle off chairlift-style chairs.

The Skyride is also noticeably taller than the SkyGlider.

10 Fun Facts about the Minnesota State Fair Skyride

mn state fair skyride

1. The State Fair Skyride was built in 1964.

Which means it’s currently nearing it’s 60th birthday!

2. It’s a legendary Von Roll 101 Model

The permanent ride was installed on the fairgrounds by Von Roll, a Swiss company known for its chairlifts, monorails, and observation towers.

In the mid-century, these aerial rides were the way of the future! With their lack of pollution, limited supports, and nearly silent operation, these people-movers were heralded as an exciting glimpse into the world of tomorrow.

Von Roll installed its first American model at Disneyland in 1956. And pretty soon, the revolutionary technology began popping up all over the world. 

Notable installations included The Brussels Worlds Fair in 1960, Six Flags Over Texas in 1961, Cedar Point in 1962, and… The Minnesota State Fair in 1964!

3. It’s one of only 14 left in the world.

In their heyday, over 100 Von Roll Type 101s were located all over the world.

Today, just 14 remain.

Other places that have kept the historic rides running include Cedar Point in Ohio, SeaWorld in San Diego, Superland in Isreal, and the San Diego Zoo.

4. It’s changed ownership just once in its lifetime.

The Skyride was originally owned by local Minnesotan Ed Hjermstad.

But when it came time for Ed to retire from the business of floating chairs, he reached out to someone he knew wouldn’t be intimated by a chairlift – Don McClure. Speaking of which…

5. It’s currently ran by Buck Hill’s former owner.

skyride mn gondola

Don McClure was a teenage skier at Buck Hill when he got a job working maintenance on the ski hill’s chairlifts.

After 40 years working Buck Hill, McClure became a co-owner of the local ski hill. And his reputation for knowing his way around chairlifts preceded him; when the Skyride’s owner needed some maintenance on the State Fair icon, he called McClure.

The two developed a friendship, and in 2003, Hjermstad officially passed McClure the baton by selling him the Skyride.

6. The Skyride owner lives at the fair.

During the 12 days of the State Fair, McClure lives in a tiny studio apartment inside the Skyride’s terminal.

Inside, he spends the entirety of the fair running safety drills and monitoring weather. (High winds and storms are the Skyride’s only two enemies.)

7. The whole thing runs on a giant engine with a counterweight.

Like most gondolas, the Skyride consists of three main parts: 

  1. A giant motor, aka The Bullwheel
  2. The rope, which the cars hang from
  3. A counterweight

The motor turns the rope, and the counterweight ensures there’s enough (but not too much!) slack in the rope, which keeps the chairs at the right height.

(That rope is more like a cable – it’s a strong core wrapped in layers and layers of steel wire.)

For those of you who know your way around the State Fair, the motor sits in the Skyride terminal next to the Blue Barn, and the counterweight sits in the other Skyride terminal, by the AgHort building.

8. Nearly every part has been replaced.

Since it’s opening in the 1960s, nearly all of the inner workings of the Skyride machine have been replaced.

But those awesome retro gondola chairs? They’re still original.

9. A backup electrical system saved the day during a power outage.

To be extra-safe, McClure installed a back up system in case the power ever went out. A few years later, it did, but the Skyride kept on chugging, and nobody got left hanging.

As McClure told MSP Mag, the Skyride only operates for a dozen days each year. So,

“It has to be a perfectly running machine. If this machine loses one day, it’s like another business losing a month.” -Don McClure on operating the Skyride

10. The ride makes millions every year.

skyride tickets earnings

On busy days, the Skyride can sell over 20,000 tickets in a single day. With current ticket prices, that means the Skyride earns $1.4-$2.2 million over the fair’s 12 days.

(The State Fair takes 30% of all profits.)

Misc FAQs about the Skyride at the MN State Fair

How long is the Skyride at the MN State Fair?

The Minnesota State Fair’s Skyride is approximately 1,600 feet long, or about 1/3 of a mile.

It runs from the Blue Barn on the Northwest corner of the Fair to the Agriculture Horticulture (AgHort) building near the Space Tower observation ride.

How much does the Skyride make at the MN State Fair?

The Minnesota State Fair’s Skyride makes between $1-2 million dollars per year.

According to the current owner, Don McClure, the Skyride sells about 20,000 tickets on busy days. Ticket prices range from $6 one way to $9 round trip. That means over the 12 days of the State Fair, the Skyride brings in about $1.4 to $2.2 million dollars.

Of course, that’s not all profit. The State Fair takes 30% of all sales. Other running costs include maintenance of the expensive machinery and pay to staff.

How old is the Skyride?

The Skyride is 58 years old.

It opened in 1964 and has operated at each year of the fair since. Check it out at this year’s State Fair!

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