Skip to site content
group travel leader select traveler small market meetings

Festivals from carnivals to Cadillacs

Courtesy The Henry Ford

Stretching from Kansas to Ohio and from Minneapolis to Missouri, the Midwest covers a broad, diverse swath of America. At annual festivals that take place throughout the region, visitors can get an immersive introduction to the art, culture and traditions that make these places unique.

Thousands of festivals take place throughout the Midwest every year, built around hundreds of different themes. Most involve music, food and other staples, and many highlight arts, crafts or local agriculture. Omaha’s Summer Arts Festival has become one of the region’s premier arts events; the North Iowa Band Festival brings talented amateur musicians to the Midwest each year, and the Wamego Tulip Festival presents the best in regional crafts.

Some events underscore the identities of their host cities. St. Paul’s Winter Carnival celebrates Minnesota’s famously frigid weather, Milwaukee’s lineup of summer festivals pays homage to its ethnic heritage, and near Detroit, The Henry Ford’s Old Car Festival Show is a reflection of the city’s auto-making tradition.

Make a stop at one of these dynamic festivals a part of your next group tour through the Midwest.The Henry Ford’s Old Car Show

Dearborn, Michigan
For 61 years, antique-auto aficionados have made the Labor Day pilgrimage to The Henry Ford museum near Detroit for the weekend-long Old Car Show. And although there are other and bigger car shows in the country, the location in the Greenfield Village historic area makes this one special.

“It’s not just a static show; we encourage these cars to move around,” said Jim Johnson, senior manager of creative programs at The Henry Ford. “We have a driving route, and in the evening, we have a gaslight tour. It becomes a huge antique-car traffic jam, and it’s amazing.”

The event pays homage to the area’s tradition of auto manufacturing, and the 750 cars featured in the show include a handful from the museum’s collection. Visitors will see replicas of several of Henry Ford’s early cars, as well as a number of early Indy racing cars, in honor of this year’s 100th anniversary of the Indianapolis 500.

Most of the cars, though, are taken there by aficionados from around the country. Lots of people show up with original Model A or Model T cars, as well as historic relics such as steam-powered cars, electrical cars, two-cycle cars and other curiosities from the late 19th century.

“We have a lot of one-of-a-kind vehicles,” Johnson said. “One participant brings a Sunset; it’s the only one left because the company was destroyed in the San Francisco earthquake. Throughout the day, we have a pass-and-review, where auto historians come to talk about the cars and attach some social history or pop culture stuff to what was going on in the time period.”

Omaha Summer Arts Festival
When Vic Gutman moved to Omaha in the mid-1970s, he saw there were no big arts events in the area, so he decided to create his own. Today, the Omaha Summer Arts Festival is in its 37th year and has grown to become one of the largest events of its kind in the region.

“We have 135 artists from all over the country who are juried in,” said festival manager Elizabeth Balazs. “This year we have artists from 29 states. We have all different media: painting, photography, jewelry, glass, wood, ceramics and sculpture. It’s a nice variety of work at all different price points.”

Visiting groups can split up and browse five city blocks of exhibits situated alongside a park in downtown Omaha. Along the way, they’ll find the World Music Pavilion, which features local, regional, national and international performers from many different musical genres. There’s also great food to sample along the way, including Neapolitan pizzas made on site in a portable brick oven and other international specialties in temporary outdoor cafes set up by local restaurateurs.

One of the most interesting elements of the festival is ArtSeen, a public program that invites visitors to participate in creating art.

“One area is called ‘Revinylization,’” Balazs said. “They’re repurposing billboard vinyl and cutting it up to make little bags. They help the public make those little bags for a small donation.”

The festival takes place each year during the second weekend in June.

St. Paul Winter Carnival
It may seem counterintuitive to have an outdoor festival in St. Paul, Minnesota, in the middle of winter, but that’s exactly the point of the St. Paul Winter Carnival.

“It started in 1886, when a reporter from New York wrote that St. Paul was another Siberia, unfit for human habitation in the winter,” said Bob Hughes, chairman of the festival’s board. “The city leaders were offended by this, so they started the carnival as a way to show the world that this was a great place to come in winter.”

The carnival has grown to become a 12-day winter extravaganza, taking place each year at the tail end of January and the beginning of February. This year, to celebrate the carnival’s 125th anniversary, the festival featured 125 events. Winter sports favorites include ice fishing, figure skating and curling contests, but locals also get into off-the-wall exhibitions such as golf tournaments and bicycle races on ice.

Festival events take place in various locations around St. Paul, with activity concentrated in the downtown area. Groups willing to brave the cold will enjoy two parades that attract large crowds.

“At our Torchlight Parade this year, there were between 25,000 and 30,000 spectators,” Hughes said. “People also enjoy going to see the Grand Parade, going to Rice Park to see the elaborate ice sculptures or going to the state fairgrounds to see the incredible snow sculptures.”

Brian Jewell

Brian Jewell is the executive editor of The Group Travel Leader. In more than a decade of travel journalism he has visited 48 states and 25 foreign countries.