I am lucky enough to be an educator at the South Carolina Botanical Garden (SCBG), a magical place nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, on the campus of Clemson University. I am always searching for new ways to bring local families into the Garden for low-cost fun and educational experiences. As I start writing this post, I am in the throes of preparing for my second Peter Rabbit Festival at the Garden. I thought it might be helpful to share some of the steps I followed, and issues I faced/face in planning this event.
Some years ago – in the late 80s, early 90s – the SCBG was the site for some extremely popular Peter Rabbit Festivals. Since we have a Peter Rabbit Garden the connection seemed natural. Peter Rabbit was also a good choice since Beatrix Potter’s work has been out of copyright for several years and her beautiful, whimsical drawings could be used freely.
The first Peter Rabbit Festival was an attempt to raise the Garden’s public presence, and also to bring in donations to the cash-strapped entity. For several years this festival grew exponentially. The last time it was held, thousands of people descended on the Garden, but, unfortunately, by the end of the day, every garden bed was trampled flat. The desire to bring donations into the Garden was also unsuccessful. I heard a story of the Director pointing out a sign for a suggested $1 donation and the visitor responding “Well, it only says suggested.” Definitely a cautionary tale for me.
Our Garden is nearly 300 acres, so deciding where to locate the festival within the space took some thought. Our largest parking area is on the opposite end of the Garden from our most visited end of the site. In the end, I decided on locating the festival in this highly visited area which has 2 sets of restrooms and several water fountains. It was important to ensure people’s personal comfort was ensured so they could enjoy the activities. For those less able to walk, we rented and ran a shuttle bus from our main parking area to the front of the Garden, where the activities were located.
Last year’s festival was attended by well over a thousand visitors, and this year we anticipate many more. As I face the second Peter Rabbit Festival, parking and crowd control is at the forefront of my mind. My biggest fear is that people will begin parking in undesignated spots and destroy the space they have come to enjoy. I hope by extending the hours of the festival from 1 p.m. – 3 p.m. to 11 a.m. – 4 p.m. attendance will be spread out more. Last year we opened up additional parking in a bit of a panic, this year we plan on using all available parking from the beginning of the program.
Serendipity: Finding Peter Rabbit
My biggest coup in festival planning was a very happy accident. I discovered that a Peter Rabbit costume can be “rented” for the cost of shipping ($160) from Costume Specialists of Columbus, Ohio. I highly recommend this company if you are planning a festival – they are incredibly easy to work with and they have many characters from several publishing houses that would fit with many programs.
I knew rabbits were to be the main theme so I contacted our local 4-H rabbit clubs, a local rescue, and a newly formed wildlife education organization, all were thrilled to participate. These groups formed the core of the event. Three families of children in my programs also stepped up to help. One mother is a professional face-painter, and she kindly donated her profits. Another has strong ties to a local craft shop, they kindly produced 500 pairs of bunny ears for children to color. One family constructed and painted a Peter Rabbit photo station. We also had storytellers scattered through the site and a scavenger hunt in one section. We also included Beatrix Potter in the event. At our historic Hunt Cabin, a volunteer talked about Beatrix Potter’s life and told Peter Rabbit Tales. Also, at the Cabin, a mycology professor put on a fantastic mushroom display referencing Beatrix Potter’s skill as a mycologist.
These elements remain in the second festival, but the festival has grown. We have added two food vendors and was approached by an artist who specializes in Peter Rabbit gifts, all of which is very exciting! In order to try and make more money for the Garden’s education programs we are selling t-shirts and notecards with a Peter Rabbit theme and the vendors are donating a portion of their profits on the day. From the first festival, we made less than a hundred dollars in donations but, thanks to the face-painter giving us all the money she made, we made about $400 total – we hope we can beat this amount this year.
Word of mouth has been invaluable in advertising the Festival. A cadre of mothers who attend my programs helped enormously in spreading the word among local families. This year we were extremely fortunate that a group called “Only in South Carolina” shared information about the Garden and the festival on Facebook in late February, and this article was shared over 600 times. When I posted the latest flyer on Facebook (last week) it has reached over 12,000 people and had over 1,000 engagements.
One thing I have realized as I write this. I have very few pictures of the first festival. I was busy troubleshooting and trying to make sure everything went smoothly. We did try and use a hashtag to encourage people to share their photos. This time I will put way more effort into this – and appoint someone who is not me to take photos.
The Second Peter Rabbit Festival is this Saturday, April 27th and at the moment I am making lists to ensure directional signs have been made, electrical drop cords and telephone cords available, all the participants re-contacted, all the while trying to keep my nerves under control. I hope this year, in addition to entertaining many people, we’ll make some money for educational programming – we shall see.
Sue Watts, Educational Program Coordinator, South Carolina Botanical Garden