Wichitans said some of their favorite River Festival events, such as the raft race and bathtub races, have disappeared over the years. Here are some of those events and why they were discontinued.
Antique Bathtub Races
After the 2008 festival, the Wichita River Festival eliminated one of its longest-running events: the Antique Bathtub Races. The event, which featured rowdy crews racing lavishly decorated boats crafted from wrought iron tubs, started in 1972. But over the years, festival officials said, participation waned. At its height of popularity in the 1980s, thousands of people crowded the riverbanks to watch. By 2007, interest had declined. Only 28 tubs were submitted, nine of them by the same person. Participants began submitting the same tubs year after year. Some longtime participants complained that fees had gone up, prize money had gone down and cast-iron tubs had become pricier. Spectators had begun disappearing as well, said Janet Wright, the festival’s executive director. “There was nobody watching it. People had lost enthusiasm.”
Bedlam 500 Bed Races
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The Bedlam 500 Bed Races, which featured teams racing beds on wheels down a street, faced a similar problem as the bathtub races, Wright said. The last year for the event was 2003.
Over the years, people lost interest in putting entries together. The festival tried several methods to lure participants and even provided beds in the final years, but they couldn’t get racers.
“We tried them and nobody participated,” Wright said. “Then we even got a couple of beds ourselves and tried to get people at the festival to participate and do it with us. Nobody was interested.”
T-95 Raft Race
Radio station T-95, part of the Journal Broadcasting group, traditionally sponsored the raft races, which featured teams racing down the river, spraying each other with hoses and hammering each other with water balloons as the crowds cheered from the riverbanks. But in 2003, the station, which also organized the event, pulled its sponsorship after the Journal’s competitor, Clear Channel, was named sponsor of the festival’s admission button. Without financial backing or organizers, the event couldn’t continue, Wright said. They were eliminated as an official festival event after the 2003 festival.
Hot air balloons
A display of floating hot air balloons, which were always launched from Sim Park, were a big part of the festival for years, but they were eliminated after the 1998 festival.
Getting the balloons aloft was complicated and expensive, Wright said, and the festival relied on sponsors to pay for the event. After the 1998 festival, when high winds grounded the balloons and disappointed the sponsors, the festival had trouble getting sponsors and dropped the event.
Though weather had grounded the balloons before, 1998 was “the last straw,” Wright said.
“When they couldn’t fly, nobody was very interested in doing it again,” she said. “It was very expensive, and we couldn’t find the funding to do it.”
In 2003, the festival introduced a hot air balloon “glow,” which allowed spectators to view the inflated, glowing balloons on the ground. A version of that has been offered at several other festivals throughout the years.
This children’s activity, which set up games and giveaways in Central Riverside Park, was expensive to put together, Wright said. It was eliminated in 2003 and has been replaced with a long string of other kid-friendly activities. Treasure Island’s last year was 2003, although a version of it was revived for the 2011 festival.
Art & Book Fair
The popular Art & Book Fair, which filled Century II and Kennedy Plaza with arts and craft vendors, was a longstanding Wichita River Festival tradition, even though it wasn’t organized or run by the festival. But in 2011, when the festival moved from May to June, Friends of the Wichita Art Museum, which organized the event, decided to keep the event on Mother’s Day weekend. The group now puts on the event separate from the festival.
Cajun Food Fest
The Cajun Food Fest, a Goodwill Industries fundraiser that offered jambalaya and more on Kennedy Plaza, had been part of the festival for 26 years. But in 2012, the group learned that it would not be able to put the event on in Kennedy Plaza because the festival had moved the main food court to an area on Douglas, just in front of the plaza. Goodwill Industries pulled the event and said it would stage it on its own. The group is still searching for the right time to put the Cajun Food Fest on independently of the festival.