6 Features of Fabulous Festivals

Ahh, festivals. The fried food, the booths that are hopefully selling more art than crafts, the people watching.

You may think that all you need to do is show up. And you could, true. But with so many agricultural and cultural celebrations to be found, consider where you’d like to ride the Tilt-a-Whirl, get heartburn and sunburn, and have one spectacularly memorable day. I’m here to help, with 6 tips for finding fabulous festivals.

Festival Arts & Crafts

Let’s be clear from the start: I L.O.V.E. festivals. I may write a bit tongue-and-cheek about them, but keep in mind that a good festival has that same indifference/deference for itself.

1. Contests. Eating contests are always good. Running while holding the fruit or vegetable of the day can be funny. But really, you need to do some homework on this one. Seriously. The more creative the contest, the better the festival overall.

Contests at the Watermelon Carnival in Water Valley MS
Contests at the Watermelon Carnival in Water Valley MS.  Serious measurement for the seed spitting contest; and the mandatory watermelon eating contest

The World Grits Festival in St. George, South Carolina has contestants roll around in a baby pool full of cooked grits. They’re weighed beforehand for their natural weight, and afterward to see how many grits they could stuff into pants and shirts taped at the bottom to hold it all in. Food better given to the hungry? Absolutely. An amazing spectacle that I hope they never eliminate? Absolutely.

The RC & Moonpie Festival in Bell Buckle, Tennessee inspires folks to hula hoop while drinking a warm RC Cola and eating a Moonpie. If you can consume both before the hula hoop drops to the ground, you advance to the next round. And who wouldn’t want to?

RC and Moonpie Festival

2. Celebrating Food.  This goes beyond the de facto trailers and booths selling funnel cakes and corn dogs; which certainly deserve a celebration all their own. In this case we’re talking about festivals that specifically celebrate a food, likely their local produce. A key factor to consider: cooking it in creative ways is not always a good thing.

At the National Cornbread Festival in South Pittsburg, Tennessee one of the contests called for new cornbread recipes. Some things just don’t need to be messed with and cornbread is one of them. Read more about my thoughts on this topic from my adventures with bluegrass and cornbread at this very festival.

Carnival and Festival Food

3. Showcase of Local Talent. Perhaps the main stage hosts the gymnastics school. Go–you’ll be surprised at how good they are, and equally surprised by how proud you become of complete strangers. Karaoke tents? You must spend time sitting in front of them. These folks are often more talented than the hired bands. Seriously. And if you’re lucky, ad hoc talent will present itself with local musicians gathering together to jam–that is a thing of beauty.

Bluegrass Band at a Festival

4. Breakfast at the VFW, American Legion, or with the Shriners. All Festivals have this, and the experience is so intimate and lovely. It’s all locals and the random folk like me–they’re curious as to who I am, but happy to see me and feed me pancakes with all sorts of delights. Pay a few dollar donation and charming folk wearing darling aprons will tell you time-tested jokes and feed you fine vittles. Do you really need any more convincing?

Pancake Breakfast at the VFW

5. The Parade. High school bands. Fire trucks. Beauty queens. Kids scrambling for tossed candy. Motorcycle riders. Decorated floats. Glory be!

Parade at Small Town Festival

6. Contests. Yes, again. Just to bring the point home, the contests make the festival. If the contests are creative, everything else will be, too. They add energy and humor; people stay longer; and they’re more opportunities for pictures! So read the descriptions carefully – if they don’t list clever competitions, decide whether the rest of the festival is sufficiently fun and meaningful for you.

Now that you know what to look for, where can you find a good one? Search for local and regional websites–they’re bountiful; and go national with festivals.com.

What are your thoughts? What makes a good festival? And just as important: what makes a bad one?
Which ones should we put on our must-go-to list?

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