A 4-day festival running Friday through Monday of Labor Day Weekend in downtown Royal Oak, Michigan, Arts Beats and Eats brings out the crowds– if the weather is nice – but really isn’t all that family friendly, as far as festivals go.
The city has parking arranged all over the place, and it costs $15 per vehicle for lots and ramps nearby and $10 if you park at the high school and take the free shuttle across town. The parking fees help offset the cost of the police and EMS presence the whole weekend. It’s a bit steep, but at least the Royal Oak PD can get paid and not go broke with the overtime. Any on-street meters were reserved for festival use, and unauthorized parking resulted in a $50 parking ticket. Local neighbors were subject to parking tickets as well, per the festival website FAQ page, but could get the required permit to park — on their own street.
The entire festival area is fenced in. Admission is charged at the gate and there are 13 of them around the perimeter so you don’t have to wait long to get in, and at $3 a head it’s not that expensive. Admission did change to $5 per person after 5pm. I felt badly for the people who showed up at 5:01 and had to pay the higher price. Children 3 and under could get in free at any time, and Friday from 11am – 5pm was also free for everyone.
All bags and purses were subject to searching, and by all I mean even the minimalist little sling wallets that hold ID, cash, lipstick and a phone. No one and nothing was singled out from what I could see: men, women, teens, diaper bags, backpacks and people of all shades of the ethnic and religious spectrum. (As an aside, I saw a family of Sikh leaving and separately two Jewish families enter — their top-knotted turbans and yarmulkes gave them away. I don’t expect there was much in the line of Kosher or Halal food available.) Alcohol was sold so the fence kept that contained to the festival. The 2-4 security guards working at each gate made sure your bag was checked, all outside food and beverages stayed outside and your libations stayed inside.
Once inside it started to go downhill.
There were lots of booths for food and drink vendors. The walking space down the middle of the street, Washington, was narrowed considerably by the booths lined up like row houses on either side of it, which were not booths per se, just generic white or blue e-z up tents. Some of the side streets were only occupied by tents on one side, so they had a bit more room. The signage for food and drink booths was commercially printed; none really stood out to grab your attention, and they weren’t numbered or coded so you had no real way of knowing how close you were to the Chicken Shawarma, Mongolian Beef or pizza. None, absolutely none of these took any money from festival goers. They cost you TICKETS. And this is where the downhill starts sliding fast, and a test drive could come in handy. I’ll get to that later.
Tickets were sold in sheets of 16 for $10 with no refunds and no option to buy fewer than full sheets from what I could see. That comes out to 62.5¢ per ticket.** One bottle of soda or water was 5 tickets ($3.125), one sandwich — I had shaved prime rib with mushrooms and onions on a Kaiser roll — was 12 tickets ($7.50). Want an elephant ear? 10 tickets ($6.25); ice cream cones? 5, 7, or 9 tickets ($3.125, $4.375, $5.625); popcorn? lemonade? beer? more tickets. None of the food booths sold beverages, so you had to make a second stop for that. And you had to choose: warm drinks or eat cold food, depending which booth you went to first.There were plenty of drink booths though, maybe one for every three or four food booths, so you didn’t have far to go to find one. Also mind you, one can not spend a few hours walking around in the sun and only have one drink, so you better double or triple up on beverage ticket use.
There was the carnival with rides at both the north and south ends of the festival. A brilliant idea, really. If the kiddos wanted to ride the ferris wheel and the giant slide you had to cross the full length of the festival in order to get to both, passing all the food, drinks and snacks along the way. The carnival was an added bonus, and added expense for families that bothered to bring their children. All the rides cost tickets, too. Honestly I didn’t even check the cost in tickets for the rides. The last time I was at a fair or carnival most rides and games were 3-5 tickets or $1.875-3.125 each here. I can see why families with kids aged 3-12 didn’t bother to come.
Don’t get me wrong, I like a good festival. But let’s add some things up. There are four family members living at home now, so we’ll just use that to help make it easy. None of us would have done any of the carnival rides or games, but for the sake of argument let’s figure on two kids each doing six of the carnival attractions — three rides, three games.
Admission: $3 ($5*) x4 — $12, ($20) *after 5pm
Food and drink tickets: 16tx for $10 (sold only if full sheets, so you may have leftovers, or Junior goes without his ice cream cone, and who wants to be that parent)
Each “meal” of
- sandwich (11tx),
- non-alcoholic drink (2 @ 5tx),
- snack (popcorn, chips 8tx),
- sweet treat for dessert (8tx):
- 37 tickets per person x4 = 148 or 9.25 sheets of tickets
- 6 activities each
- x2 kids = 12 @ 3-5 tickets each
- 36-60 additional tickets. 2.25-3.75 sheets of tickets
Total tickets in whole sheets: 12 or 13 or $120-130
That makes a grand total of $157-167. Granted some food items were fewer tickets, but alcohol was more than the 5 for sodas or water. I’m content thinking this is a pretty good average all around.
Arts Beats and Eats had a very commercialized feel to it, in the “let’s see how much we can get away with charging before attendance numbers start to drop off” sort of way. The stages were all sponsored or had ‘naming rights’ from various entities: Ford, Michigan State Lottery and several radio stations to name a few. The signs and banners didn’t do much to draw your attention because they all looked the same, were the same size, color and design. The names of the eateries providing the food seemed a footnote. The artists selling their wares did not stand out as they were mixed in between the row houses of food and drink booths in the same generic e-z up tents. I hope the artists didn’t have to pay large sums to be able to exhibit their work. The whole thing is underwritten by Ford Motor Company. Which is all good and well, since putting on festivals and fairs generally leaves the organizers scrambling to break even months after the tents are stored away until next time. There were various next-model year vehicles parked around the perimeter for festival goers to TEST DRIVE. As a bonus you would be rewarded with 6 food tickets for taking the time to do so.
Part of the gate admissions does go to charity according to the website, half of the net proceeds after gate expenses are figured. Those, I imagine, are security, paid ticket sales people, fencing, electricity to run lights at the gates, table and chair rental On a good year about $325,000 is donated to 13 different charities who send volunteers to help work at the entrance gates. That is a lot of money. It also makes me wonder what happens to the rest since proceeds from the vendors isn’t mentioned.
All in all, I wasn’t very impressed, mostly on account of the overall cost. We could take our family of four out for dinner to decent restaurants twice for less than this, and still have money left over, or once to a fine dining establishment and come out about even. It’s funny how we don’t think twice about spending this much at a festival, but balk at dropping that much for one meal. In the end, isn’t it about the same thing? One meal, I mean. I think I’d rather have my meal served to me in grand style than eat standing up from a paper tray and risk getting beer dumped down my arm or in my shoe.
I guess I’ve been spoiled by the space and affordability of Festival of the Arts in my own hometown.
** I know we don’t have half-pennies in the US anymore, but this is what the math came out to and all calculations reflect the actual cost in dollars and cents for festival fare.