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?
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.
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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