Wisconsin is home to a variety of impressive air and water ski shows, many of which are free. So grab your calendar and plan to enjoy summer by air and water. To jump-start your planning, here are some great performances to consider, along with tips to make the most of your excursions.

By Melanie Radzicki McManus | Photo by Gunnar Larsson (Min-Aqua Bats)


Billed as the World’s Greatest Aviation Event, some 700,000 people from around the globe flock to this annual week-long aerial extravaganza, held every summer at Oshkosh’s Wittman Regional Airport. A major perk for families: free admission for children 18 and under.

AirVenture’s most popular event is the daily afternoon air show, where some two dozen pilots perform precision aerobatics. This year’s headliners are the Canadian Forces Snowbirds, the Royal Canadian Air Force’s aerobatic team. The Snowbirds will perform Friday through Sunday.

There also will be two evening air shows. “During the evening shows, the airplanes have lights and fire on their wingtips and under their bellies,” says Dick Knapinski, EAA marketing coordinator. “It’s like taking a sparkler and waving it in the air, with music and a big fireworks show at the end.”

Attendees also enjoy AirVenture’s flight line, where EAA members park their aircraft. Visitors are free to stroll amid the plus-10,000 planes, which include vintage models, ultralights, home-built craft and warbirds, which are vintage military aircraft.

Another popular spot is KidVenture, where hands-on children’s activities await. Think flying a radio-controlled airplane or experiencing a flight simulator.

Admission to the EAA Aviation Museum is included in your ticket. The museum — one of the most popular attractions in northeastern Wisconsin — contains 100 airplanes, including two full-size replicas of Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis aircraft and a Huey helicopter flown in Vietnam.

Finally, AirVenture boasts more than 800 aviation exhibitors and 1,400 educational workshops, seminars and forums, designed for kids to adults. Evenings bring aviation- and space-themed movies shown on a five-story screen. There’s even free popcorn!



The oldest amateur water ski show in the nation, Minocqua’s Min-Aqua Bats hold free performances every Wednesday, Friday and Sunday night during the summer. The hour-long shows, held on Minocqua Lake, consist of double and trio acts, mass jumps, pyramids, barefoot routines and more.

“The shows feature an emcee and are kind of interactive,” says Krystal Westfahl, president and CEO of Let’s Minocqua. “They’re always spraying people in the front deck, so if you sit there you’ll probably get a little wet!”

The performers are an amateur group, so it’s not unusual to see some spills. “Some pretty epic crashes happen every summer,” Westfahl says. “And the more epic the fall, the more applause they get.”

Plan to arrive about 30 minutes before the 7 p.m. show if you want to snag a seat in the bleachers. There’s a concession stand if you want to enjoy a snack, but you can also bring your own food.

Some guests prefer to watch the show from their boat, while others enjoy the performance from waterside restaurants like The Boathouse and Thirsty Whale.

While the shows are free, the performers pass a hat to collect money for their uniforms and other expenses.



Much like the Min-Aqua Bats, the Chetek Hydroflites is an amateur water ski group that puts on free shows every Thursday and Sunday evening during the summer. The team, which has been performing on Lake Chetek for 20- plus years, has 25 skiing members this year.

Be prepared to witness some impressive jumps, acrobatics and pyramids, says Janene Haselhuhn, a Hydroflites past president. “People can’t believe the talent that is in this town.”

The one-hour shows are based on a new theme each year, with an emcee providing narration while lively music plays in the background. Seating is available on deep, concrete bleachers; most people bring lawn chairs and set them on the concrete tiers.

“There’s not a bad seat anywhere,” says Haselhuhn. “No matter where you sit, you can see the whole show.”

If you come an hour ahead of time, you can enjoy a pre-show put on by the Hydroflites’ junior team. Grab some pizza, brats or hot dogs from the concession stand, then sit back and enjoy.



The impressive US Air Force Thunderbirds will headline this year’s WaterStone Bank Air and Water show, a free event set on the shores of Lake Michigan in downtown Milwaukee. The Thunderbirds will perform during the 12 to 4 p.m. air show each day, along with other aerial groups such as the Italian Air Force’s national aerobatic team and the US Army Parachute Team, nicknamed the Golden Knights.

Plan to arrive at the lakeshore around 9 a.m., says Paul Rogers, the show’s founder and president. The event attracts 150,000 people each year, and the 90-minute water show begins at 10 a.m. This event showcases water-based performances by water ski teams, fire boats and jet skiers.

Set out your folding chairs or beach blankets anywhere you’d like between Bradford and McKinley Park Beaches. “For families, McKinley Park Beach is a better choice, as it’s a lower-key spot,” Rogers says. “Bradford Beach has more of a party atmosphere.”

Leave the snacks at home. Plenty of local vendors will be selling a variety of food and drink. Between the shows, or when you need to stretch your legs, check out the vendor exhibits and sponsor displays.



You don’t have to be preparing to fly out of town to visit the Mitchell Gallery of Flight, tucked into Milwaukee Mitchell International Airport. The free aviation museum is open whenever flights are scheduled, and is in the main terminal’s south end before TSA security.

Exhibits are split into four categories: People, Aircraft, General Mitchell Field and Space. The People section focuses on Wisconsin’s famous aviators, such as Gen. Billy Mitchell, after whom the airport is named, and Lt. Alfred M. Gorham, a World War II fighter pilot and Wisconsin’s sole member of the renowned Tuskegee Airmen.

The Aircraft section features several antique propellers dating back to World War I, while the General Mitchell Field area contains what is believed to be the first beacon used at the airport back in 1926. The Space exhibit is centered around a laser light experiment launched aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia in 1986, and sponsored by Milwaukee’s St. Mary’s Hospital.

Want to learn more about the airport? Schedule a tour that includes a stop at the museum.



AirVenture is very popular, so you’ll need some advance planning to have the best experience.

  • First, consider becoming a member of the Experimental Aircraft Association. No, you don’t have to be a pilot or own an airplane. But the $48 annual membership includes a discount on AirVenture tickets, plus allows you to camp on the grounds for a nominal fee, saving you costly lodging.
  • Next, buy your parking pass in advance, says Dick Knapinski, EAA marketing coordinator. “You’ll get through the line much faster and will save $10.” Try to arrive between 7 and 8 a.m. if you wish to avoid traffic, which is at its peak from 8 to 10 a.m.
  • If you’re only planning to come for a day or two, Knapinski says opening day (Monday, July 22) is quite busy, as are Friday and Saturday. Tuesday and Thursday are quieter, while Wednesday is more bustling because it’s one of the night-show days. The event’s final day – Sunday, July 28 – is very quiet. While there is still an air show that day, many of the planes in the flight line will be gone.
  • AirVenture is held on 1,500 acres, so wear comfortable shoes and bring plenty of sunscreen, water and a hat. Folding chairs or blankets are handy for watching the four-hour air show, as are ear plugs. For very young children, earmuffs work well.

Melanie Radzicki McManus is a freelance writer specializing in travel. She has received numerous awards for her travel writing, most notably Lowell Thomas gold and grand awards, considered the most prestigious in the field. Her book "Thousand-Miler: Adventures Hiking the Ice Age Trail" was published in 2017 by the Wisconsin Historical Society Press.

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