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Riverfest returns to Tampa’s Riverwalk this weekend

The popular festival was canceled during the pandemic. Meanwhile, the Riverwalk became a soothing magnet for the area.
The crowd at Riverfest 2017 watched hot air balloons at Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park. The illuminated balloons will return for Riverfest May 6-7 in Tampa.
The crowd at Riverfest 2017 watched hot air balloons at Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park. The illuminated balloons will return for Riverfest May 6-7 in Tampa. [ Times (2017) ]
Published May 2

After taking a two-year pandemic pause, Tampa’s Riverfest returns this weekend with activities along the entire length of the Riverwalk’s many parks, on the water and even in the air, with hot air balloons and artistic lanterns lighting up the night.

Though the Riverfest took a break to avoid large crowds gathering, the Riverwalk itself became a magnet for Tampa Bay residents looking for some solace outdoors, said MaryBeth Williams, executive director of Friends of the Riverwalk, which has produced the community event since 2015.

“It’s a connector, and it served as an opportunity for folks to get out and exercise and enjoy the riverfront,” Williams said. “Our foot traffic doubled during the pandemic.”

Puppies compete during the Wiener Dog Derby at the 2019 Riverfest in Curtis Hixon Park in Tampa. There will be racing all day May 7 for this year's Riverfest.
Puppies compete during the Wiener Dog Derby at the 2019 Riverfest in Curtis Hixon Park in Tampa. There will be racing all day May 7 for this year's Riverfest. [ TIMES (2019) | Tampa Bay Times ]

It took 40 years for the Riverwalk to become an overnight success. The 2.6-mile ribbon of waterfront walking and biking paths finally gelled into an attractive, contiguous feature when the first Riverfest was held in 2015. By 2019 there were 40,000 people at the event, Williams said.

Related: Tampa loves its Riverwalk, wants to add 6 more miles

It is a free two-day public event that will have a broad range of activities including live music, foodie events, illuminated hot air balloons and a Wiener Dog Derby.

New this year is a lighted lantern parade, similar to the Earth Day lantern parade Dunedin held in 2011. Riverfest organizers hope it will become an annual event. Paper lanterns in the shapes of manatees, sea turtles and other artistic forms will be illuminated with battery-powered LED lights and held up on sticks for a mile-long parade along the river.

Lighted paper lanterns, like these used in a 2011 Earth Day parade in Dunedin, will be a new feature at this year's Riverfest. Artists have been enlisted and there will be a workshop to help people make their own lanterns for Saturday's parade.
Lighted paper lanterns, like these used in a 2011 Earth Day parade in Dunedin, will be a new feature at this year's Riverfest. Artists have been enlisted and there will be a workshop to help people make their own lanterns for Saturday's parade. [ ANTHONY ALLRED | Times (2011) ]

The Riverwalk website has templates and videos that show you how to make a lantern at home, or you can buy one of their lantern kits for $20-$25 at thetampariverwalk.com or at Ace Hardware, 4215 W Bay to Bay Blvd., Tampa. 813-415-3180. There will also be lantern workshops in Water Works Park from 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Saturday.

The lantern parade will start at Water Works Park at 8:30 p.m. Saturday and end in Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park.

Friday schedule

  • Live music: 4-10 p.m.
  • Dessert trucks and beer tents: 4-10 p.m.
  • Taste of the Riverwalk: 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. A wristband purchase is required for access to the food tent area. It’s $15 for three samples from participating restaurants, $20 for five.
  • Balloon glow: 8:30-9 p.m. Stationary hot air balloons will be illuminated.
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Saturday schedule

  • Yoga in the Park: 9 a.m., donation-based. Bring your own supplies to Water Works Park.
  • Live music, food trucks and beer tents: 10 a.m.-10 p.m.
  • Taco Festival: 10 a.m.-9 p.m. $15 for three tacos, $20 for five in Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park
  • Paddle Invasion: 8:30-11 a.m. Canoes and paddleboards race on the river near Water Works Park.
  • Wiener Dog Derby: The popular dachshund races and competitions for “wiener dog wanna-bes” will be running all day starting at 10 a.m. There will be side events such as contests for best nose, best tail, a costume and kissing contest. Wiener dogs from the age of 4 months to 18 years old will race in many age categories in Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park.
  • Lantern Parade: 8:30 p.m. starting at Water Works Park.
  • Balloon Glow: Hot air balloons will be illuminated from 8:30-9 p.m.

Parking is available at multiple locations within a few blocks of the event, and the TECO Streetcar has a free shuttle every 15 minutes. See tecolinestreetcar.org for a map and schedules.

If you go

Riverfest: A free two-day festival along the Tampa Riverwalk, 4-10 p.m. Friday and 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Saturday, all centered near Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park, 600 N Ashley Drive, Tampa. Free. thetampariverwalk.com.

At the first Riverfest in 2015, people strolled the Tampa Riverwalk to find activities along the entire length of the Riverwalk running from Tampa Heights through downtown Tampa to the Channel District.
At the first Riverfest in 2015, people strolled the Tampa Riverwalk to find activities along the entire length of the Riverwalk running from Tampa Heights through downtown Tampa to the Channel District. [ ANDY JONES | Times (2015) ]
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