When the Wichita River Festival moved all its pieces around last year — rearranging both the layout and the calendar — not everything fit quite right, it turned out.
So when the 41st annual festival opens Friday for its nine-day run, attendees will find that several main events have new locations (the food court, the River Run) and new dates (the ice cream social). Some events are gone (Cajun Food Fest, Plunge) and new ones are being introduced (a river-worthy Windwagon). And a couple of old favorites are coming back (the Block Party, the festival guide in booklet form).
Following is a look at the changes, additions and subtractions festival officials have planned for this year’s event, which runs Friday through June 9 in downtown Wichita.
New location and look for the food court: Last year, the festival moved the main food court from its longtime home on the drive east of Century II to a parking lot on the west side of Century II. The plan was to get the food court closer to the action, which was all being shifted closer to the river.
But that spot didn’t work, said Janet Wright, the festival’s president and CEO.
“The west side of Century II was a difficult location,” she said. “It was crowded, and there was too much traffic. It was not as safe as we felt it should be, and it was hidden, too. But we didn’t want to put it back where it was because there’s not much activity over there.”
So this year, festival organizers persuaded the City Council to grant permission to put the food court smack in the middle of Douglas Avenue, just in front of Century II. The section of Douglas from Waco to Water will be closed to traffic starting Wednesday until the evening of June 10. Both Waco and Water will be accessible to traffic, though.
Also new at the food court: The festival offered vendors the choice of setting up either in the traditional white tents or in their own mobile food vending units, which are more sophisticated than a typical food truck, Wright said. About half the vendors chose to use tents, she said.
Retooled River Run: The annual River Run also is all new this year. Instead of starting and finishing on Douglas, both the two-mile and 10K runs will start on Waterman, near the Hyatt lawn. The River Run also has a new sponsor — the Kansas Health Foundation — and the area near the start and finish lines will be packed with vendors, music and more. A post-race breakfast will be provided for 10K runners.
“It will be like a runners’ village with different vendors and folks offering products and services to runners,” Wright said.
Returning favorites: Good news for those who didn’t like the fold-out guide: The traditional booklet guide is back this year and is included with the purchase of a button.
Also returning: the Block Party, which was on hiatus last year. But research conducted by a Wichita State University class last summer showed that people want the Block Party back, Wright said. This year’s will take place from 4 to 10 p.m. on the festival’s final day — Saturday, June 9. It’ll be staged on Douglas, on Kennedy Plaza and in A. Price Woodard Park and will include a free concert by Tony! Toni! Tone!, the pop group whose show was canceled last year because of severe weather, a classic car “cruise-in,” the fourth annual funnel-cake-eating contest, street performers, and a finale fireworks show only slightly shorter than the opening night display.
Westbank Musicfest: The festival is staging two nights of nationally known headliners and calling it “Westbank Musicfest.” But this year, festivalgoers will have to pay extra to see the shows. “Jessie’s Girl” singer Rick Springfield and opening act Survivor will perform at 4 p.m. Saturday, and country star Kellie Pickler will appear with singer David Nail in a show at 4 p.m. Sunday. Both shows require $15 tickets plus a River Festival button for admission. The concerts will take place on the West Bank stage area with food and beer vendors nearby.
New events: The festival is introducing a few new events, including a daily ride in a pontoon boat fashioned to look just like the Windwagon. The event, put on by the Wichita Wagonmasters, will offer rides from the Drury Plaza Hotel Broadview to the Keeper of the Plains and back that include narration. The boat ride is $4 for children and $5 for adults and will be offered daily through the festival.
Also new this year: A white tiger exhibit set up on the west side of Century II that will allow spectators to feed the rare animals.
Canceled events and moved events: The festival has eliminated Plunge, the river challenge introduced in 2009 as an alternative to the canceled bathtub races. They just couldn’t get enough people interested in it, Wright said.
The festival also will be without the Cajun Food Fest, a part of the festival for the past 26 years. Goodwill Industries, which put on the fundraising event, was offered the chance to move it to the WaterWalk Pavilion area when the festival decided the traditional spot on Kennedy Plaza was too close to the main food court. But they didn’t think it’d work there, said Gayle Goetz of Goodwill Industries.
The group is planning to stage the event later this year separate from the festival. But there are no hard feelings, Goetz said. “We wish the River Festival well,” she said.
Another popular event is changing dates The Hiland Dairy Ice Cream Social, which last year was included in opening-night events, is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Wednesday on Douglas near Waco.
Returning favorites: Several favorite events will remain as they were last year. Friday’s opening night activities include the Sundown Parade and the Koch Twilight Pops concert, which will include cannon blasts and a KC-135 flyover. The main fireworks show will follow and will be launched from the Douglas Avenue bridge.
The Wichita Eagle Medallion Hunt is back and once again will feature a physical medallion hidden somewhere on public property in Sedgwick County. The first clue will appear in The Eagle and on Kansas.com on Thursday.
The Cessna Kids Corner will be moved back to A. Price Woodard Park from its spot last year near Exploration Place. It will again include inflatables and carnival rides in the parking lot west of Century II.
The popular zipline, which took daredevils flying across the Arkansas River, will return this year, but because of the huge demand, two lines will run simultaneously.
And the WaterWalk Pavilion, introduced last year as a way to get young professionals to the festival for after-work fun, will return with nightly live music and food catered by local restaurants.