The Wichita River Festival will open Friday, coming off its most successful run in four years.
And it will do so with a few flashy additions set up in a slightly different “footprint,” as festival President and CEO Mary Beth Jarvis likes to call it.
The annual nine-day festival, which runs Friday through June 7, made a few changes in 2013, when Jarvis and her crew took over. Among them: gating off the entire festival area so that only attendees with $5 buttons could enter, and making all the musical entertainment included in the price of the button.
The results: Button sales shot up 38 percent from 2012, sponsorships increased by 11 percent, and attendance rose from 300,000 in 2012 to 360,000 in 2013. The festival finished in the black for the first time in four years.
“I think there were a number of factors that contributed,” Jarvis said. “While there were some folks that were a little jarred by the fact that the button was more consistently required and you needed it to go into places like the food court, there were many others who really appreciated safety and security it created in the festival zone. Everyone who was there was there on purpose, enjoying the festival with friends, neighbors and family.”
The festival’s opening weekend will be crammed with many of its marquee events.
The traditional Sundown Parade will take its usual route through downtown Wichita on Friday evening, followed by the Koch Industries Twilight Pops Concert on Kennedy Plaza and then a beefed-up fireworks show. The opening night fireworks will be the only big, high-flying show this year, too. The festival is foregoing finale fireworks in favor of a laser light show on June 7 that will include ground-level pyrotechnics.
Organizers also are moving the children’s activities from A. Price Woodard Park to the WaterWalk area south of the Hyatt and Century II. The expanded kids’ area will be anchored by a 90-foot Ferris wheel offering $3 rides with great views and, on the first weekend, glowing and flying hot air balloons. Children also will be able to enjoy inflatables, carnival rides and a lineup of new educational activities focused on science, math, art and other subjects.
“One thing I’m excited about is that we have a very robust programming for kids and families,” Jarvis said.
A. Price Woodward Park on the riverbanks just west of Century II, now free of kids’ activities, will become a happy hour zone called “Ackerman’s Backyard” and will feature a beer garden, live music and food vendors from 4 to 8 p.m. weeknights and all day on weekends.
Organizers also are introducing an aviation-themed “festival within a festival” on the opening Sunday, June 1, which will include static aircraft displays set up on Main Street, Wichita aviation displays inside Century II and flyovers throughout the day. Visitors also can try out aircraft simulators and participate in several aviation-centered activities, including a Rosie the Riveter lookalike contest.
And the festival has another lineup this year of well-known musical acts who can be seen for the price of a button: country star Jerrod Niemann on Saturday, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts on June 1, Tamela Mann on June 2, Grandmaster Flash on June 4, The Romantics on June 6 and Marky Ramone’s Blitzkrieg with Black Joe Lewis on closing night, June 7.
This year’s festival won’t have a Block Party but it will have the other favorite events fans have come to count in, including the River Run on Saturday, the ice cream social on June 4 and the Cajun Food Fest on June 5.
Jarvis said she hopes the changes will help the festival, which sold 104,000 buttons last year, continue its recovery and possibly match a high it last saw in 2008.
“The last time we sold 125,000 buttons was in 2008,” she said. “I’d love to be back at that level.”
For a complete guide to the festival, including information on food, music and more, see Friday’s Go! section.
Schedules also can be found at wichitariverfest.com.