Sometimes the idea is better than the reality. Take, for instance, New Year’s Eve in Times Square, a 115-year-old tradition. Sure, you get celebrity hosts, national acts, swag and proximity to the nearly 12,000-pound crystal ball that draws the curtain on another year. But to receive those goodies, you must battle crowds and cold and survive hours on your feet without a public toilet or an adult beverage — though considering the former, maybe the latter restriction is for the best. For some revelers, this sounds like bliss; for others, torture.
We are not suggesting you skip the country’s biggest festivals and holiday celebrations. They have earned a place of honor in America’s consciousness for good reason. But for the new decade, we recommend breaking from the pack and following an alternative track. Though smaller in scale and lower in attendance, these events attract top talent in their fields, including art, cinema, music, cartoons and hot-air ballooning. They also offer a full schedule of activities that don’t just engage and entertain; they foster a strong sense of community between the attendees, the participants and the destination itself.
We picked a dozen of the most hyped events, such as Burning Man in Nevada, Comic-Con in San Diego and, yes, New Year’s Eve in Times Square and found substitutes that are similar in theme and spirit but without the toe-crush of humanity. Pencil these ideas into your 2020 calender, and don’t be surprised if they achieve permanent marker status.
Why you should switch: In 1995, a gang of rebel filmmakers established Slamdance as a refuge for filmmakers shut out of the more exclusive showcases, such as the one held at the same time in the same Utah city. “Slamdance exists to support emerging filmmakers and to discover unknown talent,” said Peter Baxter, one of the founders. This year, audience members can choose among — or binge on — 27 features and 81 shorts. Nearly 130 directors will screen their films, following in the now-famous footsteps of such alum as Lena Dunham (“Girls”), Rian Johnson (“Star Wars: The Last Jedi” and “Knives Out”) and Oren Peli, who premiered “Paranormal Activity” at Slamdance in 2008. When the lights come back on, guests can partake in post-film Q&As and panel discussions, including a summit in a hot tub. (Towels, but not bathing suits, are provided.) For access to all of the films and programs, plus happy hours, purchase the $350 pass. Or go a la carte with the $10 or $14 single tickets. The festival also allots several seats for day-of purchases, leaving the theater doors open till the very last minute.
Insider tip: Leave the car at the hotel and catch the free shuttle bus that serves Park City’s historic area and Kimball Junction. Bonus: Your seatmate could be a filmmaker or actor en route to Slamdance.
Why you should switch: Louisiana designated Eunice the Prairie Cajun Capital and on Fat Tuesday, you’ll know why. Instead of the pageantry, floats and krewes of Carnival, the townspeople put on their Mardi Gras best — jester-like costumes with ruffles, tasseled conical hats and chain mail masks — and hop on their horses for the Courir de Mardi Gras. For the run, which celebrated its centennial last year, participants gallop into the countryside to beg and cajole the neighbors for gumbo ingredients. To add to the madcapness, the capitaine will release a chicken or guinea fowl for a game of catch-and-release. Meanwhile, in town, revelers dance in the street to live music and pig out on traditional Cajun and Creole cuisine. The foraging party returns in the afternoon and march in a parade that ends with bowls of gumbo. As a warm-up to the main attraction, go a few days early for more music, a fais do-do barn dance, a boucherie (the butchering of a whole hog) and the Lil’ Mardi Gras, where you can meet the next generation of courir-ers.
Insider tip: You don’t need a horse and costume to participate in the courir: Follow along in your car and civilian clothes.
Why you should switch: The Affordable Art Fair started in London’s Battersea Park in 1999 as a non-judgy and nurturing space for art collectors of all levels. The event expanded to New York a few years later, the only U.S. city to host the fair. About 70 local, national and international galleries representing 400 living contemporary artists take over two floors of the Metropolitan Pavilion in Chelsea. The roster changes each season, although some stalwarts, such as London’s Cube Gallery and Quantum Contemporary Art, are repeat guests. The paintings, sculptures, prints and photographs really are affordable, with works ranging from $100 to $10,000. If you are tight on funds or browsing time, peruse the curated selections on the Under $500 Wall. Admission costs $20 and includes lunchtime talks on such subjects as interior design and ceramics and a highlights tour by Vanessa Seis, the fair’s director. Sign up for a complimentary session with a personal shopper, who will escort you around the booths and can help with such big decisions as whether the liquid gold lips by Jeremy Biggers will go with your grandmother’s floral couch.
Insider tip: Parents with budding Fridas and Pablos are given free rein of the fair during Stroller Hour, which starts an hour before the official opening time.
Why you should switch: Lightning in a Bottle started as a birthday party for two of the three Flemming brothers. The event became more than just a family and friends affair in 2006. The siblings took the best parts of Burning Man and Coachella — the communion of artists, musicians and a troop of happy campers — and left behind the unappealing aspects, such as the desert dust and the millennials in Woodstock attire. “It’s not a spectator event,” said Dede Flemming, the non-twin of the trio. “People come to create the art and energy around them.” The music skews toward electronica with some indie in the mix, and the art is interactive. One piece, which will return this year, is the Flemmings’ “The Mixtape,” a “living room” with a cassette player and tunes from the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s. In the immortal words of David Bowie, circa 1979: “I am a D.J., I am what I play.” Participants can also stir their creative juices in dance, art, culinary and wellness classes, then quiet their overstimulated minds with yoga or meditation sessions. The festival has bounced around five venues over 15 years but may have found a permanent home at the Buena Vista Aquatic Recreational Area, about 150 miles northeast of Los Angeles. Nearly all of the festivalgoers camp out, elevating the act of sleeping outdoors to an art form.
Insider tip: Instead of lugging your gear to central California, book one of the Boutique Camping packages that includes all of your needs, such as tents with full-size beds and real mattresses.
Why you should switch: The eighth-annual music and culinary event at the Napa Valley Expo takes pairings to the next level. The organizers match up the most unlikely celebrity suspects, such as Snoop Dogg and Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto, who demonstrated their masterful rolling skills during a sushi-making session in 2015, and José Andrés and the bassists from the Dave Matthews Band, Green Day and Metallica, who played pizza peels converted into bass guitars while the Washington-based chef sliced up the leg of an Ibérico ham in 2017. This year, participants can watch 15 mash-ups on the Williams Sonoma Culinary Stage and sample food and wine from more than 40 local restaurants and wineries. “You can experience all of this in one location,” said Dave Graham, the festival's chief executive. “We call it Napa-tism.” National acts perform on five stages and appeal to fans on both sides of the generational divide. For example, two years ago, while the post-millennials rocked to Billy Idol and Bruno Mars, the selfie set grooved to Halsey and the Chainsmokers. When your energy starts to wane, pop into the spa for an IV hydration treatment or a massage — this is Napa, after all.
Insider tip: You don’t need to buy a VIP ticket to see additional acoustic performances by the BottleRock musicians in a more intimate setting. The general admission ticket includes access to the JamPad acoustic stage, where the same performers play in a cozier venue.
Why you should switch: Bristol holds the title of the country’s oldest continuous celebration of our independence from Britain. The Rev. Henry Wight, a Revolutionary War veteran, held the first patriotic exercises in 1785; a parade followed in the early 1800s. The waterfront town’s Independence Day is too epic to squeeze into a day. The activities officially start on Flag Day (June 14) and don’t take a breather until the last patriot has marched down High Street. The calendar is packed with free daily concerts in Independence Park (a sampling from last summer: the Rhode Island Army National Guard 88th Army Band, Bad Zeppelin and a Jimmy Buffet tribute band), a vintage baseball game, an orange crate derby, an old-timey carnival, a “Rhode” race (a half-marathon) and a fireworks display on the eve of the holiday. On July 4, the church bells ring bright and early, a gentle alarm clock for folks wishing to nab a good seat along the 2.5-mile route. The Military, Civic and Fireman’s Parade is more Mayberry than Magic Kingdom, with war veterans, unicyclists, stilt walkers, marching bands, antique cars and floats designed by local businesses, churches and Roger Williams University. (The college won the most beautiful float award last year for its steamboat decorated with postcards of U.S. waterways.) The committee also invites a Navy ship to attend; past guest vessels have fittingly included the USS Rhode Island and the USS Bristol.
Insider tip: Avoid the scrum for a prime viewing spot and attend Linden Place Mansion’s annual picnic. The $85 ticket includes seating under the linden trees, continental breakfast and a picnic lunch.
Why you should switch: Columbus is a cartoon kind of town: The state capital is home to the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum on the campus of Ohio State University, and Jeff Smith, the “Bone” graphic novelist who co-founded Cartoon Crossroads Columbus six years ago. The mission of CXC is “to treat the creators with respect and honor the art form,” Smith said. The 100 or so cartoonists who appear at the conference represent the different styles (graphic novels, animation and editorial cartoons, for instance) and diverse voices (African American, LGBTQ, Latino) of the literary genre. Pulitzer Prize-winners and best-selling authors, such as Art “Maus” Spiegelman and Dav “Captain Underpants” Pilkey, also appear onstage, ready to share their special sauce with fans. When organizing the event, Smith looked to Italy — specifically, Lucca, which holds an autumn comics festival in multiple venues throughout the city. In a similar vein, Smith divides the activities between the OSU campus and several downtown institutions, such as the Columbus Museum of Art and the Columbus Metropolitan Library. “The city becomes a character in the event,” he said. The sites are close together, so you can easily bounce between, say, a seminar on how to draw with ink and paper (cartooning unplugged), the Comics Expo and Marketplace, and a portfolio review session. For the occasion, the Billy, the world’s largest cartoon art library, will display some of the treasures in its vault. Feel a rush of nostalgia with original strips of Popeye and Krazy Kat, and overwhelming joy at seeing old friends Calvin and Hobbes. (Creator Bill Watterson left his entire collection to the library.)
Insider Tip: The event is free, but some of the talks starring bold-name cartoonists require a reservation. Check the website about a month in advance to secure a spot.
Why you should switch: The festival, which turned 40 last year, has dozens of outstanding musicians but what will really make you snap your fingers in appreciation is the free admission and legit sound — not jazz lite or jazzy pop but jazz-jazz. “It’s a real jazz festival dropped in a real jazz town,” said artistic director Chris Collins. “We stay committed to the jazz art.” Over four days, up to 70 performers command four outdoor stages from Hart Plaza to Campus Martius Park, a blocks-long stretch along the waterfront. Shows start at 12:30 p.m. and continue deep into the night with boisterous jam sessions. The musicians range from homegrown talent to international stars, up-and-comers to Grammy-award winners. Last year, for instance, artist-in-residence Stanley Clarke, a bassist, teamed up with the Detroit Jazz Festival String Orchestra for an original piece inspired by the film “Boyz n the Hood.” Also on the roster: Macy Gray, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Pat Metheny and the University of Michigan Jazz Ensemble. Throughout the weekend, audience members can attend tent talks with musicians, jazz radio hosts and journalists, and test their cool catness with trivia games.
Insider tip: Download the free Detroit Jazz Fest LIVE! app for musician bios, concert times and maps. The app will even create an itinerary based on your interests. You can also live stream all of the performances for $20.
Why you should switch: The world’s largest free hot-air balloon event debuted with a mere 20 balloons in 1982. Since then, the aircraft count has nearly quintupled, with balloons of various colors, designs and characters filling the sky over Rancho San Rafael Regional Park, a few miles from downtown. Last year, the high-altitude parade starred Aaron, an Elvis tribute balloon dressed in a white jumpsuit and gold sunglasses; Billy the Kid, who resembled an extra in “Toy Story;” and Darth Vader, a literal hot head. The event starts in the dark with the Super Glow Show, a light-and-sound spectacle in which dozens of balloons “flash dance” to the music. (The Glow Show on the second and third mornings offers a similar experience but with fewer balloons.) A half-hour later, a handful of balloons rise with the sun during the Dawn Patrol, which is also set to music. Before the Mass Ascension Launch, in which the remaining balloons cut loose, visitors can chat up the pilots and collect trading cards. One balloon stays behind and, for a $5 donation to the Children’s Miracle Network, guests can climb inside the wicker basket and hover 20 to 30 feet above terra firma. Balloon-viewing before breakfast can build up a strong appetite. For pastries, funnel cakes, doughnuts and other diet-begone eats, stroll Balloon Boulevard, an arcade of local vendors that includes the purveyor of official GRBR souvenirs. The dress code is sleepytime casual. Simply roll out of bed and into the Biggest Little Pajama Party & Bed Head Competition. Your pillow-flattened hair could win you a prize.
Insider Tip: To view the balloons from the comfort of your bed, book a hotel room with a north-facing view.
Why you should switch: Established in 1851, Maine’s Blue Ribbon Classic showcases the agricultural history and practices of the New England state known for blueberries, broccoli and potatoes. But a fair can’t exist on crops alone. About 3,000 animals perform for the crowd: oxen pull, pigs scramble and llamas bat their eyelashes. Humans can also get in on the action. Women can flex their muscles in the skillet throw and men can chuck anvils. The Woodmen’s Field Day, the largest in North America, features more than two dozen events that basically involve sawing, chopping or rolling hunks of wood. The more than 100 buildings spread over 185 acres draw a vivid picture of the farming life. For example, the Agricultural Exhibition Center highlights the gardening, crafts and baking skills of Mainers, and the Fiber Center fills in the production gap between animal fur or hair and an alpaca sweater or felt ornament. The fair is named after the town, but it could also refer to the dominant style of cooking: fried. On the second Saturday, participants take a victory lap around the track, a Grand Parade of hoofs and feet.
Insider tip: Skip the daily commute and sleep at the fairgrounds. The 3,000 sites can accommodate campers of the vehicular kind (not the pitch-and-pole type). Rates from $29 a night include water and power.
Why you should switch: The Pilgrims who sailed to the New World on the Mayflower in 1620 landed in Plymouth Harbor. In Plymouth, they founded the first permanent European settlement in New England and celebrated a Harvest Feast in 1621, which is now known as the First Thanksgiving. With its link to Thanksgiving past, Plymouth could send a guy in a turkey suit down the parade route and still attract a crowd. But it doesn’t; the town goes all out for Thanksgiving. The two-day event takes place on the weekend preceding the holiday, so all family members — including those in charge of checking the doneness of the turkey — can attend. Saturday’s two-mile-long parade is a moving timeline of U.S. history, from the 1600s to the 21st century. “We tell America’s story through the years,” said Olly deMacedo, the event coordinator. “It’s the country’s only chronologically correct parade.” The 20 floats illustrate moments that have shaped and molded our country, such as the first moon landing and D-Day. In the Historic Village, visitors can drop into four different centuries and learn about each period from living historians. They can also watch tradesfolk in the Artisan Marketplace. At the Wampanoag Pavilion, interpreters representing both groups of guests at the original table will discuss the 1621 feast, including the menu. (Venison and swan may have been served.) On Sunday, local farmers and artists set up their wares at the Harvest Market — in case you need any cooking ingredients or hostess gifts for the approaching Thursday.
Insider tip: For an elevated view of the parade, grab a patch of lawn on Cole’s Hill. Across the street is none other than Plymouth Rock.
Why you should switch: For New Year’s Eve on Pier Park, a shopping and entertainment district overlooking the Gulf of Mexico, you might want to wear a hat. Not because your ears might get cold — December temps in Northwest Florida are typically in the 60s — but to protect your head during the ball release. The 13th annual event keeps the bodies busy with three concerts, two fireworks displays and a pair of ball drops — one at 8 p.m. and the other at midnight. During the early-bird version, 10,000 inflated beach balls are liberated from suspended nets along Pier Park Drive. If one happens to roll into your arms, consider it a gift from Father Time. Fireworks and bands follow, with giant balls crowd-surfing among the revelers. As midnight nears, an 800-pound, eight-foot-tall illuminated ball descends from Celebration Tower, which stands 10 feet taller than that squat peg in Times Square. The new year starts with the bang of fireworks set off from the end of Russell-Fields Pier, which stretches more than a quarter-mile into the gulf. At the end of the night, you might be tooting the same horn as the tourism office, which declares: “Times Square has nothing on this Panama City Beach NYE party!”
Insider tip: For a wintry weather fix, run through the Snow Zone and catch the fake precipitation on your eyelashes.
An earlier version of this story stated that the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival takes place in the French Quarter. In fact, it takes place in Mid-City. The story has been updated.
About this story
Story by Andrea Sachs. Photo editing by Haley Hamblin. Design by Jose Soto. Copy editing by Wayne Lockwood. Photos by Getty Images; Lauren Desberg/Slamdance; Adam Joseph Brochstein for The Washington Post; Toronto Star via Getty Images; Aaron Glassman/Lightning in a Bottle; Rich Fury/Getty Images for Coachella; BottleRock Napa Valley; Patty Squatrito; Jeff Smith/Comic Crossroad; Detroit Jazz Festival Foundation; Maddie Meyer/Getty Images for Lumix; iStock; Associated Press; Laura Tonello; Visit Panama City Beach; Illustration by Andrés Lozano for The Washington Post