Austin residents look back at Aqua Fest with fondness, suggest new outlook for future festivals

Brooke Sjoberg

On the shores of what is now Lady Bird Lake, the Austin Aqua Festival ushered in a tradition of large Austin festivals which lives on today. Looking back on the festival 20 years after its final season, the South Austin Museum of Popular Culture has opened an exhibit chronicling the rise and fall of Aqua Fest.

Started by the Austin Chamber of Commerce, Aqua Fest ran yearly from 1962 to 1998 to drum up business on the shores of Lady Bird Lake, known then as Town Lake, during a typically slow season. SouthPop director Leea Mechling said the festival originally included a number of water events and theme nights. 

“They had a land parade (and) a water parade, where people would make their boats into floats,” Mechling said. “They had motorcycle races (and) dune buggy races on-site at Festival Beach and, later, on Auditorium Shores, and they had different cultures featured every night.”

Giving many cultures a platform to express their traditions, the festival hosted theme nights with appropriate food, music and dance. Local artists and businesses were also given an opportunity to share their work, with some choosing to bring their families. 

For Austin resident Lisa Schneider, Aqua Fest was the cornerstone of childhood summers spent on the shores of Festival Beach on Town Lake. Schneider’s father, Harry, had a booth where he drew caricatures of festivalgoers.

“I have lots of very strong memories from being there as a kid,” Lisa said. “One very strong memory I remember was my dad listening to the radio he had hung on his booth while Nixon was resigning.”

Having done caricatures during the festival’s days at Fiesta Gardens and Lady Bird Lake, Harry Schneider said his involvement in the festival was truly a family affair.

“We used to really enjoy it because I had a real job at the time, and I used to take vacations to do it,” Harry said. “We would take rooms up at the Lakeway, and Aqua Fest was always starting in the late afternoon, so we had all day to enjoy Lakeway.”

Although the Schneiders look back on Aqua Fest fondly, both said they feel Austin hosts enough festivals now to compensate for what was lost in the fall of Aqua Fest. 

Mechling said Aqua Fest grew to include national acts such as Dolly Parton and Ringo Starr, which increased ticket prices and drove attendees away. The rise and fall of Aqua Fest due to the overlooking of small local businesses may serve as a cautionary tale to festival organizers seeking to expand their events. Lela Jamalabad, a UT English literature alumna and regular festival worker, said she believes festivals need to cater to local business and arts.

“Obviously it brings more business to the city and also the country as a whole,” Jamalabad said. “It’s really interesting to see how these festivals have shifted from a cultural, artistic kind of festival to more of a business opportunity to make money for the city.”

Jamalabad said the city would benefit from supporting its local businesses in its festivals, rather than bringing others in. She cited the closure and displacement of Austin mainstays, such as Uncommon Objects, an antique store which recently had to move from its original South Congress location.

“I think a lot of things, nowadays, have to do with what’s trendy when it comes to culture, fashion, music and art, not necessarily (with) what the city itself has to offer,” Jamalabad said. “Maybe (the city needs) everyday support for local businesses, instead of trying to find other ways to get more money to the city when there are already so many businesses here.”