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Southern Festivals Thunder

Photo courtesy KY Derby Fest

Independent filmmakers and Elvis impersonators, tall ships and jet fighters, hot rods and thousands of colorful plastic beads — when you attend a festival in the big cities or small towns of the South, there’s no telling what you’ll see.

Whether the midwinter festivities of Mardi Gras in Louisiana or the midsummer celebration of HarborFest in Norfolk, Va., festivals and events can be a great way to get to know a destination and what its locals get excited about. These events come in all kinds of sizes and shapes, from Arkansas’ small Ozark Foothills FilmFest to the massive, multiweek Kentucky Derby Festival.

For groups, festivals and events present an opportunity to enjoy some special activities not normally available at museums and other tourist attractions. In Tupelo, Miss., a weekend-long competition features Elvis tribute artists paying homage to the city’s most famous son; visitors to Charleston, W.Va., can enjoy a classic dose of Americana during the Charleston Boulevard Rod Run and Doo Wop.

Whichever festival you choose, it’s sure to be a memorable aspect of your next group tour in the South.

Kentucky Derby Festival
Louisville, Ky.
Everyone recognizes the Kentucky Derby as the biggest event in Louisville and one of the greatest annual spectacles in sports. But if you haven’t attended, you may not be familiar with the Kentucky Derby Festival, the series of concerts, the parties and the special presentations in the two weeks leading up to the race on the first Saturday in May.

“This will be the 56th year for the Kentucky Derby Festival,” said Mark Shallcross, the festival’s communications manager. “It started in 1956 with the Pegasus Parade, which is still one of our marquee events. Over the past two decades, we’ve added and tweaked events, and now we have about 70 events over a two-week period.”

Events take place around the city and run the gamut from the traditional to the offbeat. A series of nightly concerts takes place in an outdoor amphitheater by the river; the series includes a Christian music night, and this year it will be headlined by Building 429. More innovative events include bed races and the Run for the Rosé, an obstacle-course race featuring restaurant waiters carrying trays full of wine.

The biggest single event of the festival is Thunder Over Louisville, an all-day affair that features a six-hour air show and a 30-minute fireworks presentation over the Ohio River.

“There are about 100 different air show acts,” Shallcross said. “It’s a combination of military and civilian air show acts. We have an estimated 750,000 people, and the fact that there are so many people in attendance makes many of these pilots consider this show the Super Bowl of air shows during the year.”

Ozark Foothills FilmFest

Batesville, Ark.
In 2002, Bob Pest and some friends decided to establish a film festival in the small town of Batesville, Ark., to encourage Southern filmmakers and expose locals in the area to film culture. Today, the Ozark Foothills FilmFest has become a staple of activity in north central Arkansas.

“We’re rather unique in that there are very few film festivals in small rural communities,” Pest said. “We started largely as an attempt to build a film culture in this part of the world. So a lot of the programming we do is emerging filmmakers from Arkansas and the South in general.”

The festival has few ties to Hollywood, the commercial film industry or the film festival circuit throughout the world. Rather, it is designed to be a community-focused event. Screenings take place in venues at two local colleges, and the films are chosen to fit the taste and values of the community. As a result, the selections tend to be family-oriented, with several religious themes presented among the 60 films shown annually.

Film screenings are often followed by question-and-answer sessions with the filmmakers, giving guests an opportunity to interact with the artists firsthand. The festival also includes concerts, screenwriting contests and other programs.

“It’s a very mellow, laid-back kind of event,” Pest said. “There’s not a lot of big stars that come here, but it’s a relaxed environment where people get together and talk about the movies. We have some social events where the filmmakers meet with people.”

The festival takes place each year during the last weekend in March.

Norfolk, Va.
Held over an early July weekend in Norfolk’s Town Point Park every summer, HarborFest is the Hampton Roads area’s celebration of all things nautical.

“HarborFest is 34 years old, probably the oldest festival in the Hampton Roads,” said Pat Vargo, marketing director for the event’s parent company, Festevents. “It’s a maritime dock party. We have tall ships, fireworks and musical entertainment. It’s all outside, and it has a very maritime feel.”

The festivities begin every year with a Parade of Sails, which features tall ships from around the country sailing into the harbor. They are accompanied by many other kinds of watercraft as well, including military vessels and local private boats.

Festival organizers estimate that some 250,000 people attend the event every year. The event features arts and crafts vendors, wine tasting and headline entertainment; three barges in the harbor shoot a salvo of mortars for the annual fireworks display; and one of the most popular recurring acts in recent years has been Junkanoo, a group of about 75 teens from the Bahamas.

“It’s a huge carnival-style parade from the Caribbean,” Vargo said. “They wear these ornate costumes and play big horns and whistles. They do a parade through the crowd, and the crowd just moves out of the way for them.”

Throughout the weekend, other entertainers, such as jugglers, stilt walkers and pirates, roam around, interacting with festivalgoers. Another offbeat highlight is the Anything but a Boat competition, for which folks build homemade floating vessels and then race them through the harbor.

Tupelo Elvis Festival
Tupelo, Miss.
This year marks the 75th anniversary of Elvis Presley’s birth in Tupelo, Miss. For the past 12 years, the city has been honoring the King of Rock’s legacy with the annual Tupelo Elvis Festival, which takes place June 4-6 this year.

“We’re a tribute, a celebration of our hometown son,” said festival director Debbie Brangenberg. “There’s a tribute competition where people come to be named the ultimate Tupelo tribute artist. It’s kind of like a Miss America pageant. We have about 40 contestants, and three winners go on to the national tribute competition in Memphis.”

In addition to hearing performances by a variety of tribute artists, festival attendees can visit a variety of sites around town associated with Elvis. The house where Elvis was born is now preserved as a birthplace museum, and the church that his family attended has been moved onto the grounds of the museum and restored to its early 20th-century appearance.

“They’ve created an experience where you can actually feel as though you’re attending church,” Brangenberg said. “It’s very moving, and it features the Southern gospel music that’s very prominent in our neck of the woods. On Sunday afternoon of the festival, we have a tribute gospel music concert there.”

Groups can also visit the school that Elvis attended, the hardware store where his mother purchased his first guitar and the fairgrounds where he performed in 1956 and 1957. The fairground is now the park where the festival takes place, with Elvis merchandise vendors, food and a carnival. At this year’s festival, the local community theater group will give two performances of the Elvis-theme Broadway musical All Shook Up.

Mardi Gras
Shreveport, La.
Mardi Gras is perhaps the biggest of Southern celebrations, with parades, galas and other festivities taking place in communities along the Gulf Coast in the weeks leading up to the Lenten season. In Shreveport, La., local krewes host the state’s second-biggest Mardi Gras celebration, offering a more affordable and family-appropriate alternative to the New Orleans soiree.

Though there are a number of krewes in the Shreveport area, the largest are Centaur and Gemini, which both host large parades and gala balls in the two weekends leading up to Fat Tuesday. The parades, which take place on a stretch of road along the riverfront, feature all of the regalia, custom-decorated floats and colorful throws that have come to characterize Mardi Gras.

“Several of the krewes do float-loading parties the night before their parades,” said Tarah Holland, public relations manager for the Shreveport-Bossier Convention and Tourist Bureau. “The public is invited to come through and watch how the floats are put together, so you get a sneak peek of what’s in store.”

The parades are major events in Shreveport, creating some $17 million in direct revenue from out-of-town visitors annually. For groups, the Convention and Tourist Bureau has created a special hospitality tent and viewing area that includes food, entertainment, and front-row seats for the parade.

“It’s called the Mardi Gras Bash Tent,” Holland said. “We set up a tent along the riverfront. The bash tent includes a live band, T-shirts and some traditional Louisiana food like crawfish etouffee, Nathcitoches meat pies and other things. And there’s a dance floor, and you’re in there mingling with locals.”

Charleston Boulevard Rod Run and Doo Wop
Charleston, W.Va.
A few years ago, Randy Easter and some friends were working with the mayor of Charleston, W. Va., to think of a family-friendly event that would bring folks into their community for a weekend. What they came up with was the Charleston Boulevard Rod Run and Doo Wop, a classic car show and oldies music festival that now draws about 100,000 visitors over a four-day stretch.

“The first year we had a little over 300 cars,” Easter said. “I think I’ll have close to 1,000 cars this year. We’ve had people from nine states in the show and even two cars from Canada.”

All types of cars are welcome in the show, which is free to the public. Past favorites have included a 1937 Mercedes from the German army and other specialty cars worth more than $1 million.

In addition to the car show, the event features a number of other components, including mud races and a truck pull. Women’s World at a local hotel has a variety of craft, jewelry and clothing vendors, and a haunted house is outfitted with a variety of cars, hearses and caskets.
The other main component of the festival is nightly concerts on the levee.

“We have oldies rock ’n’ roll bands on Thursday through Saturday night,” Easter said. “This year, we have Danny and the Juniors and Bill Haley and the Comets. Then we have a little church service Sunday morning with a local group singing.”

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.