River Festival: Plaza packed with fun, organizers hope

05/29/2014 5:13 PM

08/06/2014 1:53 AM

This year’s Wichita River Festival might be a bit of a claustrophobic experience, but organizers are hoping that’s a good thing.

The event, now under new management, opens Friday with the traditional Sundown Parade, followed by the Koch Twilight Pops Concert featuring Wichita native-gone-big-time Chris Mann and a big fireworks show.

Over the next nine days, festivalgoers will find favorite events – as well as many new ones – packed into the area just around Century II. This includes the main food court, which will return to its original home on Century II Drive, and all concerts, which will be staged on Kennedy Plaza rather than on the West Bank Stage.

Mary Beth Jarvis, who took over direction of the festival this year from retiring president Janet Wright, said the up-close aspect is one of many changes she hopes will give the festival a jolt of energy.

“I hope that people will feel the energy. I hope they will create the energy,” she said. “I hope they will come down with their families and know that their friends and neighbors are going to be there, too.”

Organizers, hoping to reverse years of financial losses by the festival’s parent company, Wichita Festivals Inc., are trying many new tactics.

One is offering a $3 child’s button in addition to the $5 adult button. They’re being offered for children ages 6 to 12.

Another is a festival gate policy that is more stringent than ever to make sure that the only people contributing to the crowded party are people who really want to be at the crowded party.

Festivalgoers won’t be able to access much of anything at the festival unless they’re wearing buttons. Barricades, fencing and volunteers will ensure a buttoned-up crowd, Jarvis said.

But the button will feel more valuable than before, too, she said, because all the concerts this year are free with a button. The list of nightly performers includes several big names, such as Mann, Big Head Todd & the Monsters, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, Montgomery Gentry and more. Previously, headliner concerts cost extra. This year’s festival has more of them, and the extra fee is gone.

Organizers also are excited about several new activities, including a June 8 closing-night beach party that will fill Kennedy Plaza with 310 tons of donated sand, good for playing sand volleyball, tug-of-war and watching headliners The Go Go’s.

The festival also is bringing back events such as the celebrity egg toss and is offering more activities for bicyclists. There’ll even be a place for them to leave their bikes under the watchful eye of a “bike valet.”

Jarvis encourages Wichitans – even those who haven’t been to the festival in years – to come give it another try.

“Every party is as fun as the guests make it,” she said.

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