Ice House

How Did the Houston Children's Festival Become Such a Big Freakin' Deal?

With 50,000 annual visitors, the downtown fest even made Frommer's 300 Unmissable Events and Festivals Around the World.

By Marianella Orlando March 21, 2017 Published in the April 2017 issue of Houstonia Magazine

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It’s one of those weird facts that you hear from time to time: The McDonald’s Houston Children’s Festival is one of Frommer’s 300 Unmissable Events and Festivals Around the World. Even though the venerable travel guidebook company’s compendium of international events came out in 2009, boosters tout the festival’s inclusion like it was yesterday.

For Houston, it’s as much a source of pride as bewilderment that this annual event—again, our Children’s Festival—was ever on a bucket list with the Tango Festival in Buenos Aires, Oktoberfest in Munich, and the Rose Ball in Monte Carlo. But there it is.

To this day, even the fest’s own organizers seem a little surprised. “It wasn’t something we solicited and submitted in an entry form. It came out of the blue for us,” chuckles director Tony Terwilliger. “We were like, ‘Wow, great,’ and are just very thankful to have been selected.”

Chuckling aside, among events of its kind, the festival’s a pretty big deal—the biggest in the country. Having started out almost three decades ago with an inaugural crowd of 5,000, it now attracts 50,000—yes, 50,000—festival-goers annually, including families from all over Texas, plus California, Oklahoma, Louisiana, even Mexico, who travel here specifically to attend. The two-day event has raised more than $5 million for creator/sponsor Child Advocates, the local non-profit that helps abused and abandoned children.

Among hundreds of activities to choose from, there’s face painting, arts and crafts, pony rides, petting zoos and inflatable bounce houses. The grounds, which take up 16 downtown blocks, will be teeming with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Power Rangers, Storm Troopers and Smurfs. And big-in-the-kid-world celebrities making appearances include Daniel Tiger from PBS’s Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood and Jack Griffo from Nickelodeon’s The Thundermans.

In the end, the sheer scale of the thing may account for its making Frommer’s. People hold big events and cordon off kids’ areas, but rarely is the focus solely on little ones. “It’s not just going to the mall or a fun house or trampoline place, or even a festival with basically a small children’s zone,” says Terwilliger. “Ours is unique because there’s so much to do and so much to see.”

Tangoing in Buenos Aires, it’s not, but if you’ve got kids, that’s probably out, anyway.

$10–12; children under 3, free. 10:30 a.m.–6:30 p.m. April 1–2. 901 Bagby St.

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