Courtesy New Orleans CVB
Throughout history, people have gathered to commemorate harvests, anniversaries and holidays. Festivals were, and continue to be, a time to take a break from the toils of the week and celebrate what makes a community unique.
Whether it’s a big party like Mardi Gras in New Orleans or a celebration of a particular local produce, like the Cherry Festival in Traverse City, Mich., people proudly celebrate what they value about their hometowns. When communities gather in this way, they showcase their culture in a special way.
Fortunately for groups, the vibrant festivals continue to be an important part of American celebration, allowing travelers to soak up rich local traditions throughout every region of the United States and during every season of the year. Here are 10 of the country’s most engaging festivals and special events for groups.
Memphis In May
Memphis ramps up to summer with Memphis in May, a monthlong festival chock full of music, food and special events.
Every year, festival organizers choose one foreign country as a theme and dedicate a week of events to celebrating its heritage. Exhibits, art and the country’s culture are spread throughout the city and give visitors an opportunity to experience the customs and food.
Memphis is widely known as a barbecue mecca, but at the World Barbeque Cooking Contest, the best of the best compete for the title. Samples aren’t available, but food vendors serve the famous Memphis style barbecue throughout the grounds.
Memphis in May aslo includes the Beale Street Music Festival in Tom Lee Park, a three-day extravaganza that features local and international artists. The festival offers acts of a number of genres with, of course, a heavy helping of blues. Groups flock to the Sunset Symphony, which closes out the month with a full day of music, an air show, fireworks and a performance by the Memphis Symphony Orchestra.
National Cherry Festival
Traverse City, Michigan
On the shores of Lake Michigan, the National Cherry Festival is a weeklong celebration of one of America’s classic fruits, with more than 100 events for groups to enjoy.
The festival features wine and culinary galas such as the Cherries Grand Buffet, where visitors can sample a wide variety of dishes made from cherries. Festivities also include colorful parades, arts and crafts, and orchard tours to see how the cherries are harvested.
Competitive group members can take part in a cherry-spitting or pie-eating contest, “closest to the hole” golf challenges and golden-pin bowling. And spectators can enjoy the Ultimate Air Dogs contest, where the dog with the longest jump wins a prize, and a family sand-sculpture contest.
Other events include an air show over the bay, a car show and fireworks. A national recording artist provides entertainment each evening.
New Braunfels, Texas
Can’t make it to Bavaria for Oktoberfest? Put on your lederhosen and head to the Texas hill country in November for Wurstfest, a 10-day celebration of sausage. The festival will celebrate its 52nd year this fall, and festivities kick off with the “biting of the sausage” and ceremonial tapping of the first keg.
New Braunfels has a long German heritage, so expect dance floors to be filled with attendees in German garb. Take a break from dancing with German food such as schnitzel, sausage and sauerkraut and plenty of beer. The festival also features traditional American fair food, such as funnel cakes, turkey legs, cotton candy and a variety of fried novelties, including Kool-Aid, Oreos and cheesecake.
More than 40 musical groups from the community and all over the world — including yodelers, polka and oompah bands, and dancers — create a festive atmosphere with distinctive German flavor.
Gettysburg Civil War Re-enactment
Every year around July Fourth, thousands of costumed interpreters of all ages gather in the battlefields around Gettysburg to bring history alive. In 2013, the annual Gettysburg Civil War Re-enactment will commemorate the 150th anniversary of the 1863 battle complete with cannon blasts, musket fire and encampments.
Re-enactors take the event seriously, so you can be sure that details in uniforms, flags, troop movements and other intricacies are as close to real as possible.
Battles re-enacted in the four days will include Pickett’s Charge, the Battle at Little Round Top and Devil’s Den, and the dramatic “Crossroads of Destiny,” where hundreds of Union and Confederate troops stream into battle on the first day.
All re-enactments take place in a private field, and there is grandstand seating for spectators during the battles. Between the fighting, visitors can experience living-history presentations, listen to period music from bands and stroll through Union and Confederate camps to see re-enactors prepare food and clean their weapons.
Kentucky Derby Festival
Packed with more than 70 events, the Kentucky Derby Festival takes place in the two weeks leading up to the “Fastest Two Minutes in Sports” and is a great group event. The festivities draw more than half a million visitors, including numerous celebrities, international dignitaries and lots of groups, which all go to enjoy the pageantry.
The events kicks off with the spectacular Thunder Over Louisville, the largest annual fireworks display in the United States. The Pegasus Parade is another Derby Festival highlight, with marching bands, colorful floats, giant inflatables and celebrities.
The main event happens the first Saturday of May, when visitors can break out their big hats, place their bets and order a mint julep for America’s race: the Kentucky Derby. There are two different ways to experience the race: Grandstand seats offer an upscale, VIP experience (at a premium price); infield experiences are more laid-back and affordable.