As good times go, it was hard to beat last year’s Wichita River Festival. A strong schedule and nearly perfect weather refreshed the brand and raised hopes even higher for 2014 Riverfest, which opens Friday.
Under the leadership of Wichita Festivals president and CEO Mary Beth Jarvis, the festival was able to end a slide in attendance and sales last year. It was jarring at first to see the main event area newly fenced in – some would-be food court visitors were especially irked – but the change had the desired effects of assuring security and dramatically increasing button sales.
That helped the festival get back in the black and back on track as Wichita’s prime community event – its annual chance to shake off school and work, welcome summer, embrace the outdoors, and celebrate downtown and the Arkansas River.
This year another change will take some getting used to – only one fireworks show, after Friday’s opening-night Koch Industries Twilight Pops Concert, with a laser light show and ground-level pyrotechnics finishing things off on June 7. The relocation and expansion of the kids’ area sound smart, with a 90-foot Ferris wheel and educational activities among the family-friendly add-ons. A Sunday celebration of aviation seems a fitting and promising twist. And it will be nice to see the hot-air balloons return.
The concerts, which can be attended for the price of a button, stretch across the genres, spanning the Wichita Symphony Orchestra and Music Theatre Wichita, Jerrod Niemann, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, Tamela Mann, Moe Bandy, Grandmaster Flash, Kelley Hunt, the Romantics, the Mowgli’s, Black Joe Lewis and Marky Ramone’s Blitzkrieg.
A lot of old favorites will be back, of course, including the Sundown Parade, River Run, ice-cream social and Cajun Food Fest. The Eagle’s Medallion Hunt started rolling out the clues Thursday, with the prize an “Ultimate Game Room” from Chilton Billiards and Spas. And don’t forget the funnel cakes, turkey legs, roasted corn and other Riverfest dining rituals (and deep-fried adventures).
The instructions for enjoying Riverfest aren’t complicated: Buy a $5 button ($3 for ages 6-12). Consult the schedule (The Eagle and Kansas.com can help). Assemble your friends and loved ones. And head to the heart of the city, or risk missing the experience of Wichita at its most mellow.
Rain or shine, Riverfest is powered by thousands of volunteer hours and the good will and generosity of sponsoring businesses and organizations. It’s impossible to imagine Riverfest without them, or Wichita without Riverfest.