Skip to site content
Group Travel Leader Group Travel Leader Group Travel Leader

Festivals are Southern traditions

From Memphis, Tennessee, to the Mississippi Gulf Coast, festivals and events highlight the most compelling figures, thrills and traditions of Southern culture. There’s bridge jumping, Renaissance fairs, hot-air balloons and a celebration of bourbon, among many more.

To give your group a taste of Southern hospitality and revelry, plan your tours of the region to coincide with one of these Southern festivals and fairs.


Elvis Week

Memphis, Tennessee

In 1978, on the first anniversary of Elvis Presley’s death, a crowd gathered at the gates of Graceland to hold a candlelight vigil in the King’s memory. That vigil grew each year and eventually gave birth to Elvis Week, which became an official event in 1982 when Elvis Presley Enterprises Inc. opened Graceland to the public.

Today, Elvis Week, held every August, attracts thousands of people from around the world, said Kevin Kern, director of public relations for Elvis Presley Enterprises. In 2013, about 40,000 people attended the weeklong festival, but Elvis Week drew about 75,000 in 2012 because it was the 35th anniversary of Elvis’ death.

Each year, the festival centers around a theme; the 2014 theme will be “60 Years of Rock ‘n’ Roll” to tie in the birth of rock ‘n’ roll with Elvis’s first recording in 1953.

One of the most popular events every year is the Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist Contest. Elvis tribute artists from around the world gather in Memphis to compete for the title, but in order to compete in Memphis, they must have first won a sanctioned, qualifying contest, Kern said. Throughout the week, the semifinalists are whittled down in round after round until a new “King” is crowned during the finals.

Elvis Week includes live music and concerts, Elvis movie screenings, tours to Elvis’ birthplace in Tupelo, Mississippi, and panel discussions with Elvis insiders. But the candlelight vigil remains the “cornerstone” of Elvis Week, Kern said.

Police close Elvis Presley Boulevard to accommodate the throng of people who make their way through Graceland’s gates to the Meditation Garden, where Elvis, his parents and his grandmother are buried.

“It’s a very quiet and solemn event to pay tribute to the man they call ‘The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll,’” Kern said. “No matter how many times you’ve seen it, you can’t help but get goose bumps watching them pay tribute to the man whose music meant so much to them.”

Bridge Day

Fayetteville, West Virginia

When the New River Gorge Bridge opened in 1977, officials closed it to traffic to let people walk across the 3,030-foot-long, single-arch bridge that — finally — connected Fayetteville, West Virginia, to, well, the other side of the New River Gorge.

But Bridge Day didn’t get its start until 1980 when two parachutists jumped from a plane and landed on the New River Gorge Bridge, followed by five parachutists jumping off the bridge into the gorge, said Cindy Dragan, Bridge Day Commission chairwoman.

Today, Bridge Day, always the third Saturday in October, is the largest extreme sports event in the world, she said. Last year, 450 base jumpers parachuted from the bridge; those do not include the people who rappel off the bridge and the skydiver who every year jumps from a plane with a large American flag.

“As if jumping off the bridge is not enough,” Dragan said, in 2012, the event added a new twist: a catapult that launches base jumpers off the bridge.

“People love to do that. They start the countdown, and it throws them off,” she said.

For those who don’t want to jump or be flung from a bridge 876 feet aboveground, they can always walk across it; Bridge Day is the only day of the year that it’s legal for pedestrians to be on the bridge. But visitors can also pay to walk on the catwalk beneath the bridge or zipline down the side of the gorge, Dragan said.

Another option is to pay for shuttle service to the bottom of the gorge, which offers the best view of base jumpers floating from the bridge. Reservations are a must because it’s the only way to the bottom of the gorge on Bridge Day other than walking or biking, Dragan said.

The event also includes nearly 200 vendors and food booths, the Taste of Bridge Day and a chili cook-off in downtown Fayetteville.


Kentucky Bourbon Festival

Bardstown, Kentucky

You don’t have to be a bourbon lover to go to the Kentucky Bourbon Festival, although you may just come away as one.

Locals claim that more than 90 percent of the world’s bourbon is made in Kentucky’s Nelson and Marion counties, and all the most famous distillers — Jim Beam, Wild Turkey and Maker’s Mark — are from the region.

The festival got its start in September 1992 when the area’s master distillers gathered for a dinner and bourbon tasting at My Old Kentucky Home, and “the next year they added more people, and it’s just continued to increase from there,” said Linda Harrison, executive director of the festival.

About 52,000 people from 46 states and 15 countries attended the 2013 bourbon festival, Harrison said. Eleven distilleries participated in or sponsored the celebration.

Every September, the six-day festival delivers tastings, classes, workshops, dinners, dances, live music and other entertainment for bourbon lovers and bourbon virgins alike. Events include master tasting classes, barrelmaking workshops and bourbon cocktail mixology classes, as well as historical tours and ghost tours of Bardstown.

Four Roses Distillery hosts a Let’s Talk Bourbon breakfast, and Wild Turkey puts on the Boots and Bourbon Wild West-themed chuck-wagon dinner. Jim Beam hosts a dinner that’s prepared by a top Kentucky chef, using plenty of the good stuff in the dishes that are cooked onstage in front of the crowd. Heaven Hill’s event — Bourbon, Cigars and Jazz — is a New Orleans-centric dinner with Cajun food, a jazz band and dancing.

The Great Kentucky Bourbon Tasting and Gala is the festival’s signature event and “a bourbon lover’s dream,” Harrison said. All the distilleries are present at the black-tie affair, and guests can taste bourbons and meet the master distillers before dinner.

“All these master distillers are like rock stars, but they’re so nice,” Harrison said. “Everyone loves to chat with them.”


Alabama Jubilee Hot Air Balloon Classic

Decatur, Alabama

The Alabama Jubilee Hot Air Balloon Classic began in 1978 and is held every year over Memorial Day weekend. But if guests arrive on Memorial Day, “they’ll get there just in time for the cleanup,” said Ramona Evans, vendor chairwoman for the festival, who has volunteered with the jubilee for 20 years.

Hot-air-balloon pilots come from around the world, and the jubilee has 55 to 65 balloons each year, she said. About 50,000 spectators attended the jubilee last year, Evans said. All the balloon-related events are free, and the weekend includes an antique tractor show, an antique car show, a craft fair, a parade, and live music and entertainment.

The event’s first flight is the Hound and Hare Balloon Race on Saturday morning. One balloon inflates and launches; once it clears the field, all the other pilots race to inflate their balloons and take off to find the first balloon, or “the hare.” A large X is rolled out where the hare landed, and all the other balloons must try to find it and toss a beanbag onto the X, Evans said.

Sunday morning is the key-grab race, when pilots fly over a field, nearly grazing the grass, as they try to navigate their balloons close enough to reach out and grab a ring from a stand. The pilot who does wins a hefty prize, Evans said.

Although hot-air-balloon rides are not open to the public, visitors can get a brief lift in the basket during free tether rides, Evans said. Guests have to stand in line, and they’re never guaranteed a spot because the operator may run out of fuel, but the tether rides are crowd favorites and “great photo ops,” she said.

Visitors also enjoy Balloon Glow on Saturday night, when “all these multicolor balloons inflate and just look like really pretty light bulbs or lanterns,” Evans said. The jubilee wraps up with a fireworks display on Sunday night.


Carolina Renaissance Festival

Huntersville, North Carolina

Hear ye, hear ye, and get thee to the Carolina Renaissance Festival.

The Carolina Renaissance Festival started in 1994 as a six-acre fair. Today, it is one of the largest Renaissance festivals in the world, with more than 500 costumed performers acting in character and speaking in Old English; 100 vendors selling food and handmade goods; 11 stages presenting music and comedy shows; and cottages, castles, games and people-powered rides filling the 20-acre festival grounds.

In 2012, about 170,000 people came through the gates of the Carolina Renaissance Festival, said Matt Siegel, the festival’s marketing and entertainment director.

Last year, the festival added an additional weekend, and organizers expected the 2013 attendance numbers to come in at about 190,000, Siegel said.

The festival offers “something for everybody,” he said. Families and young children love the petting zoo, the magic shows, the comedy shows and the performers who juggle and do acrobatics and circus stunts. Couples enjoy the “Tortuga Twins” show, which is geared toward adults; the show is still family friendly, but with humor that children may not understand.

One of the most-attended events is the thrice-daily horseback jousting tournament in the 1,200-seat arena. Competitors in full armor gallop toward their opponents to knock them from their steeds. Another crowd favorite is the “Earthquest Birds of Prey” show, when a falconer flies trained raptors over onlookers’ heads.

All the rides are people powered or, more precisely, “peasant” powered. Peasants push and pull to run rides such as Da Vinci’s Flying Machine, Voyage to the New World and the World’s Largest Rocking Horse.

The two-month-long festival is open Saturdays and Sundays through October and November. This year, the festival will open Saturday, October 4, and close Sunday, November 23.


Cruisin’ the Coast

Biloxi, Mississippi

It’s known as the “largest block party in the world,” and the annual Cruisin’ the Coast feels just like that, except instead of neighborhood blocks, it’s parties in towns and cities lining the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

The annual event began in 1996 as a way to celebrate antique cars and hot rods and the music, culture and nostalgia associated with American automobile tradition. The first Cruisin’ had 374 registered cars. Last year’s event drew 7,042 registered cruisers, as well as thousands of people who just like to attend the events and check out the classic cars.

“People will park on the side of the roads to watch the cruisers go by,” said Taryn Pratt Sammons, media relations specialist for the Mississippi Gulf Coast Regional Convention and Visitors Bureau. “It’s a really cool event, even for the locals.”

Cruisers from nearly every state and even Canada and Sweden arrive in Mississippi to motor along the beachfront highway that hugs the Gulf Coast. The event has official stops in towns and cities along the coast, including Bay St. Louis, Biloxi, D’Iberville, Gulfport, Ocean Springs and Pax Christian, where stages, live bands, and vendors greet cruisers and spectators at each venue.

“[The events] are scattered all across the entire Mississippi Gulf Coast,” Sammons said. “We’re 62 miles of Gulf coastline, and they have an event in almost every city.”

The kickoff parade for Cruisin’ is usually held in Long Beach, and the swap meet is always at the Mississippi Coast Coliseum in Biloxi; but most events move around, so visitors should scope out the schedule to find the block parties, sock hops, concerts and contests.