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Southeast Tourism Society: Urban Festivals

Photo courtesy Harborfest

Pirates and filmmakers, tall ships and country music stars, stilt walkers and millions of plastic beads — when you attend a festival in a big Southeastern city, you never know what you’ll see.

Whether it’s the midwinter festivities of Mardi Gras in New Orleans or the midsummer celebration of HarborFest in Norfolk, Virginia, major festivals bring an unmatched excitement and community spirit to cities all across the region. And they come in a wide variety of themes, such as Tampa Bay’s annual pirate invasion and the Oscar-qualifying Atlanta Film Festival.

For groups, they can be a great opportunity to sample local flavor and to add some top-flight entertainment to an itinerary. The CMA Music Festival in Nashville, Tennessee, gives visitors up-close access to their favorite musicians, and groups at Little Rock, Arkansas’ RiverFest enjoy musical entertainment and admission into many of the city’s most popular attractions.

Whichever festival you choose, it’s sure to be a memorable group experience.

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

“It’s a maritime dock party,” said Pat Vargo, marketing director for the event’s parent company, Festevents. “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 the Parade of Sails, which features tall ships from around the country sailing into the harbor. The ships are accompanied by many other kinds of watercraft, including military vessels and local private boats.

Festival organizers estimate that every year, some 250,000 people attend the event, where they find arts and crafts vendors, wine tasting and headline entertainment. 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 festival goers. Another offbeat highlight is the Anything but a Boat competition, for which folks build homemade floating vessels and then race them through the harbor.

Atlanta Film Festival
The Atlanta Film Festival was born out of the artistic cinema movement of the 1970s, which brought filmmaking to prominence in the South.

“The festival started back in 1977,” said communications director Charles Judson. “It was an expansion of a filmmaking organization that was started to help filmmakers in the South get access to equipment and to help them foster their skills. It was also to help people in Atlanta to get exposure to filmmaking. Now 34 years later, we’re an Oscar-qualifying festival for short films.”

Throughout the nine days and nights of the festival, visitors can pick from among 150 films to be shown, including some 60 to 70 feature-length films. The main venue for the festival is the Landmark Midtown Arts Cinema, located in the heart of Atlanta’s arts district. Opening screenings take place at the Jimmy Carter Center, and the closing night’s functions are held at the 14th Street Playhouse.

Groups that attend portions of the festival can see films that may soon be contenders for Academy Awards and other honors; they can also enjoy interaction with film industry professionals.

“We have parties at night when people can meet filmmakers, actors and people in the industry,” Judson said. “We do panel discussions, where people can learn more about the film industry and filmmaking and sit down and talk with other film-lovers.”

This year’s festival takes place April 15-23.

Mardi Gras
New Orleans
A number of cities along the Gulf Coast celebrate Mardi Gras, the traditional night of feasting before the Lenten season begins. But no city does Mardi Gras like New Orleans, where the midwinter bash has grown into two weeks’ worth of activities.

Courtesy New Orleans Metro CVB

Although the city’s Mardi Gras is often associated with a rowdy scene on Bourbon Street, Lisa Holland, tourism sales manager for the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau, says there are many other elements to the festivities.

“An outsider’s perspective of Mardi Gras isn’t always what it really is,” she said. “It’s not just Bourbon Street. There’s so much more that’s available to the general public. People think it’s all this debauchery, but it’s really not.”

The French Quarter gets a lot of attention at Mardi Gras, but most of the parades also go along St. Charles Avenue, where groups can get reserved grandstand seating along with packages that include hotel rooms or meals during the parades. During the first week of festivities, known locally as pre-Mardi Gras, these packages are offered at reasonable rates that are attractive to groups.

“It’s a great way to see a parade,” Holland said. “You see the people up close and can catch the throws. You have a designated spot, a good view and a good location in a very family-friendly, group-friendly environment.”

Gasparilla Pirate Fest
Tampa, Florida
It was a visit to New Orleans’ Mardi Gras that inspired the Gasparilla festival in Tampa more than 100 years ago.

Courtesy Gasparilla Pirate Fest

“Gasparilla is a community festival that began back in 1904,” said Darrell Stefany, president of EventFest, which produces the Gasparilla festival. “It was born out of someone visiting New Orleans and seeing Mardi Gras and deciding to do something similar. So in 1904, an organization was formed called Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla, and they decided to theme it to a pirate invasion.”

Today, the celebration has grown to be a six-week-long series of special events and parties throughout town. At the heart of it is the Gasparilla Pirate Festival, a Saturday in late January when the pirate Gasparilla and his companions sail across the bay in a fully rigged pirate ship and “invade” the city.

“They come across the bay with a flotilla of ships, get the key to the city from the mayor and then have their victory parade downtown,” Stefany said. “It’s really a show like no other. Some of the boats in the flotilla are large yachts.

“On a nice day, there can be literally thousands of boats that accompany the ship into the channel. It’s a very colorful site, and the cannons are firing off the ship as it comes into the harbor.”

The celebration also includes a pirate parade through downtown and a street festival with free live music.

CMA Music Festival

Nashville, Tennessee
America’s most popular genre of music comes home to Nashville each June during the Country Music Association’s CMA Music Festival. Four days of performances make it the largest country music festival in the country. But the event stands out most in the opportunities it provides to interact with country artists.

Courtesy CMA Music Festival

“What really makes it unique is that it has the whole fan fair element to it, where the visitors get to meet many of their favorite artists,” said Deana Ivey, senior vice president of marketing for the Nashville Convention and Visitors Bureau. “During the day, they can go from booth to booth at the convention center and get autographs and have their pictures taken with the stars.”

At the Sports Zone, artists join attendees to participate in activities such as archery contests or dog Frisbee throws. Artists such as Carrie Underwood and Vince Gill play in an annual charity softball game, which the public is invited to attend.

In addition to the autograph signings and sports events, fans can find concerts going on throughout the days at two different sites downtown. Then everyone comes together at LP Field each night for a large-scale concert featuring a long list of country stars playing three or four songs each.

Ivey said that Nashville’s receptive operators make it easy for groups to attend the festival.

“A lot of groups come,” she said. “There are about nine receptive operators that sell packages to the festival. They buy a block of tickets and then take people to the different events throughout the week.”