“We Sell Fun!” That’s the website promise of Universal Fairs, the Memphis-based event company taking up the torch for RiverFest in 2018.

After it was announced last July that Riverfest’s 40th annual event that spring was its last, RiverFest event director Jack Daniels and Universal Fairs owner Mark Lovell had a “very frank” discussion about what did and did not work with former Riverfest Executive Director Deanna Korte, Daniels said. Since then, they’ve worked to redesign RiverFest — keeping some traditions intact, shedding others (and making the F in Riverfest upper case).


Whether or not they can sell that Universal Fairs fun in Little Rock — as they’ve done for state fairs in Alabama, Virginia and Georgia — is anyone’s (and everyone’s) guess. On one hand, RiverFest’s 2018 return has been planned and negotiated on a compressed timeline; the first string of performers wasn’t announced until April 4 — meaning that early-bird ticket buyers were rewarded with discounted rates for a leap of faith — and it wasn’t until late last week that stage times were added next to the names of performers on RiverFest’s website. “I know other events that just sort of announce and hope it goes right,” Daniels said, but “we’re a little bit of ‘go by the book types.’ ”

On the other hand, the Riverfest of the past had, by all accounts, become a behemoth of a nonprofit, with a dedicated board and a massive network of volunteers to coordinate, rally and manage. “When you’re around a long time, that creates a lot of constituencies,” Daniels said. “One of the advantages we have with a small ownership group — Mark [Lovell] and his family — is that we’ve really streamlined the decision-making process. From an operational standpoint, there’s been a good bit of adjustment.” That doesn’t necessarily mean, though, that Universal Fairs plans to duplicate and airdrop some ready-made business model onto Riverfront Park — the one it uses for Delta Fair, perhaps, the multimillion-dollar, 10-day annual festival in Memphis that Daniels cites as the closest analogy to RiverFest. (Delta Fair attracted its record attendance of 240,000 in 2014, a Universal Fairs communique said. Riverfests past have seen as many as 225,000 attendees in three days.) The RiverFest “map,” for example, will likely seem familiar to past Riverfest attendees. Universal Fairs contracted with both the Little Rock Convention & Visitors Bureau and the Clinton Presidential Center to occupy both spaces and preserve the festival “map” as we know it.


Daniels also said he and his team understood early on that preserving local loyalties was a key to avoiding the brushoff from Central Arkansas residents. “Part of what we understood about Riverfest, and what people respected about it, was how much money it put back into the community,” Daniels said. “So, a local port-a-potty company, local stage and sound and light folks, local folks for security. … Of course, we price-shopped. We do events all around the country. We know what stuff is supposed to cost. So, we negotiate and try to find the best deal to make sure that this event is sustainable, but we made sure for this event specifically that we could find a way to spend the money locally.”

So, Riverfest returns as RiverFest, using a hybrid approach that Daniels hopes can overcome the barriers intrinsic to redesigning a festival about which residents have a 40-year cache of preconceived notions — not to mention what Daniels calls “the ‘get off the couch’ barrier.” “We’re a different organization,” he said. “We’re a different group of folks. It’s gonna feel a little bit new, but it’s also gonna feel a little bit the same.”


Here’s a snapshot of what RiverFest will look like:

Memorial Day Weekend: After two years of holding Riverfest in early June, the festival is back to its original recipe — a three-day, family-friendly music festival over the Memorial Day holiday.

The “Footprint”: The RiverFest map will extend from the First Security Amphitheater in Riverfront Park (known in RiverFest sponsorship terms as the Arkansas Federal Credit Union Stage) eastward to the grounds of the Clinton Presidential Center, where the carnival rides (the “Ford Family Fun Zone”) and the AMP Energy Organic Stage will be set up.

No More Riverbucks: A “coupon” program, as Daniels called it, “is a great way to manage money, and when you’re running an organization like Riverfest in the past that has a lot of volunteers and a decentralized command system, through a volunteer board or volunteers handling your cash, the coupon system is an easy way to manage your money. We take a very different approach.” That means vendors are reimbursing Universal Fairs for a percentage of their gross sales, Daniels said, so with the “middle man” cut out, patrons simply pay for their food and beverages with cash or credit. ATMs will be set up throughout the festival. Carnival rides in the Ford Family Fun Zone, however, are still ticketed, so you’ll need to find a ticket station near those amusements to purchase individual ride tickets or a wristband that affords you unlimited rides.


Fireworks: Rather than closing the festival, a fireworks display is scheduled for 9 p.m. Friday, May 25, just before country star Tracy Lawrence’s set.

Ticketing/passes: A multiday weekend pass with no re-entry is $50. A multiday weekend pass with unlimited re-entry is $65. A VIP weekend package is $250, and includes unlimited re-entry, premium seating, complimentary beer, a daily dinner buffet, access to a VIP platform near the stage, VIP bathrooms and more.

Single-day tickets for adults are $25 for Friday and $30 for Saturday and Sunday and do not include re-entry. Single-day tickets for children ages 5-12 are $10, free for children 4 and under, and do not include re-entry. If you’re bringing the kids, and especially if you plan to be at RiverFest for only a few hours, your cheapest option is to be at the gates during RiverFest’s Family Hours Special: Between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, the purchase of a single-day ticket for children ages 5-12 is discounted to $5 and gets one adult in free. (If your child is 4 or under, the adult pays $5 to enter). Family Hours Special tickets do not include re-entry.

Wristbands, wristbands, wristbands: Gone are Riverfest badges and pins. Welcome the new, fiber wristbands. “If you’re a true, all-in RiverFest patron,” Daniels said, “you’ll be wearing three wristbands. You’ll have your entry wristband, your unlimited [carnival] ride wristband and your adult ID-check wristband.” Patrons who purchased entry wristbands directly at one of RiverFest’s ticket outlets — Rock City Harley Davidson, Damgoode Pies or any of 19 regional Hardee’s locations (listed at riverfestarkansas.com/tickets/ticket-outlet-locations) will walk through the security screening and enter the festival. Patrons who purchased a pass online will obtain entry wristbands from a station at the entrance and then enter security screening. (Wristbands are also available for those who purchased passes online to pick up at the RiverFest office, 500 President Clinton Ave., Suite 20, between noon and 4 p.m. Monday, May 21, through Thursday, May 24.) All patrons 21 and older who want to imbibe will need to present IDs at an ID check station to get the wristband that signifies they’re clear to purchase alcoholic beverages. (Beer offerings start at $4/12-ounce can.) The wristband that gets you unlimited rides ($20) may be purchased at a station near the Ford Family Fun Zone on the grounds of the Clinton Presidential Center.

For patrons whose passes allow for re-entry, or to attend on multiple days, it’s best to get cozy with those wristbands; cutting them off or tampering with them means you can’t get back in. “We’re pretty clear about the wristband policy,” Daniels said, “and that’s why we made them comfortable, that’s why we made them good lookin’ and that’s why we made them from a material that will last a few days. If you want to swim a triathlon on Saturday, your wristband will still be good for your re-entry on Sunday.”

Security: Backpacks, water bottles, certain types of video or recording equipment and a host of other prohibited items are listed at riverfestarkansas.com/information/rules-of-conduct. Be prepared for a bag search upon entrance. “Really it’s the security that takes the most time,” Daniels said. “And that is just a function of being safe and running a smart event.”