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Entering the splash zone: The history of Austin Aqua Festival

We’re talking about the city’s first major festival, Austin Aqua Festival, which ran for 36 years.

The National Water Ski Kite Flying Champonships on July 30-31, 1970. The championship was held on Austin's Town Lake during the Austin Aqua Festival, a 10 day celebration featuring water sports. The contestants must fly a slalom course marked by distinctive water geysers, an innovation of the Austin Ski and Boat Club. The Hotel Gondolier is visible in the background as the competitor is pulled behind a speed boat in the air with skis and a kite

Early activities included motorcycle and boat racing, kite flying competitions, and beauty contests.

Photo via the Austin History Center PICA-00111

Table of Contents

Long before Austin City Limits Music Festival and SXSW, a different local event captured the hearts of Austinites: the Austin Aqua Festival.

Beginning in 1962, the festival was an attempt for the Austin Chamber of Commerce to drum up tourism during the hot Texas summer. With parades and live music galore, Austin Aqua Festival was the city’s first major festival and centered around water-based activities.

During its run, the festival attracted performances from the likes of Kenny Loggins, Chuck Berry, and Dolly Parton. So what made the festival so special?

Not-so-humble beginnings

Between Town Lake and the City of Austin Power Plant, the festival took place at Festival Beach. Like ACL Fest’s iconic wristbands, tickets for the weeklong fest took the unique form of collectible “Skipper Pins,” which were purchased for $1-$3 (about $10-$30 today, adjusting for inflation).

Visitors — around 250,000 at the festival’s peak — came from around the nation to enjoy:

  • Elaborate parades
  • Controversial speed boat racing
  • A kite flying championship
  • Beauty contests
  • Local vendors
  • Nightly concerts
  • Themed days
  • Rubber duck races
  • A North Austin vs. South Austin tug of war over the lake
  • Rotating entertainment.

In 1966, Aqua Fest hosted the world premiere of “Batman” along the shores of Town Lake, complete with a visit from Adam West himself, and a Thunderbirds performance.

Group portrait of six women in bathing suits standing in and in front of a convertible parked beside the water, circa 1966. This image was taken during Aqua Festival.

The Austin Aqua Fest took many forms over its 36-year history, transforming from a civic festival to a music festival.

Photo via the Austin History Center PICA-15991

Growing pains

Aqua Fest moved to Auditorium Shores in the late 1970s, due to steadily growing crowds and protests over the festival’s drag boat racing, which was later banned.

Despite opening up more space for stages and national performers, the shift was costly. After the move, the City of Austin removed financial support and began charging the festival to use the land, believing the event was self-sufficient.

Where did it go?

Now with ample room for entertainment, Aqua Fest began to focus more on live music and hired Ringo Starr and Dolly Parton to perform in 1992. Hiring big names cost a premium, which drove ticket prices up and attendance down, and the festival took a $300,000 loss that year.

It was anything but smooth sailing after that — the festival sold a record low 44,000 tickets and lost more than $700,000 the following year. In dire straits, the festival was low on cash, on a debt repayment plan, and had lost all support from the city.

Aqua Fest continued to sink for a few more years, relying on volunteer support until its bank account ran dry in 1998. At the time, general consensus said that the city had outgrown the once-beloved festival.

Setting the stage for present day festivals

It’s unlikely that Aqua Fest will return, though the festival’s nostalgia is alive and well in a Austin Aqua Fest Alumni group on Facebook. Many local event enthusiasts argue that Aqua Fest walked so that future festivals could run — only be four years after the fest shut down, the first-ever Austin City Limits Festival was held in Zilker Park.

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