Welcome to Winterfest
The winter season in Queenstown is synonymous to those in the know with buzz and energy.
The buzz is no more keenly felt than in the weeks leading up to the region’s ski field’s tantalizing announcements of opening dates as the surrounding mountains get their first coats of icing sugar like snow.
Locals pull their snow gear out from storage, snow lovers from everywhere compulsively follow snow reports and the ‘will it be the best season ever’ conversations in local cafes tease everyone into a state of anticipation.
Meanwhile a team of locals and volunteers work like Santa’s elves, ignoring the call of the annual rituals to put the final touches on Queenstown’s annual start of winter celebration, the Queenstown Winter Festival.
Since 1975 the Festival has been the kooky, cool and crazy pressure valve that releases the build-up and lets the world know that ‘winter starts here, so come on down and join the party’.
The Queenstown Winter Festival is New Zealand’s – and some suggest the southern hemisphere’s – biggest celebration of winter.
Held over four days in late June, more than 45,000 people converge on Queenstown at venues from the lake shore to the mountain tops.
Nothing is too crazy and no superlatives are left untested.
The Festival puts up its marquee over a broad collection of events that include live music, competitive mountain exploits, comedy, fireworks, culinary creativeness, and polar lake plunging.
While the Festival today is marked on calendars globally, four decades ago its beginnings were far more low key.
In 1975 a couple of Kiwi blokes were sipping a beer in Eichardt’s pub and decided the small town of just 5,000 residents should throw a bit of a party for the locals and skiers.
A committee of keen tourism operators and the whole town got behind the idea, coming up with entertainment and events.
It was a real team effort and the ideas couldn’t have been wackier, but the locals embraced it and the Queenstown Winter Festival was born.
It was originally just a winter carnival and a chance for the locals to have some fun in winter when the town was quieter.
Back then serious snow didn’t arrive until late July/early August and this was the distant time before snowmaking (introduced in 1991) brought the ski season forward to early July, then June.
In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s Queenstown was a small village and operators would have come through April, May and June on very lean business.
Jetboat and rafting companies were off the water and many motels closed for that off-season.
Some of the early events are now stuff of legend.
A handful of those original events, like the Dog Derby and Day on the Bay with its hilarious Birdman Contest, are now enduring Festival favourites.
In particular, the Dog Derby is loved by festival lovers nationally and internationally.
It’s an infamous day out for high country farmers and their normally obedient working dogs which in more recent years has allowed ‘townies’ and their canine buddies to join in.
Each numbered, bib-clad pair must run, slip or slide their way to the bottom of Coronet Peak through the chaos of whistles and barking, crossing the finish line together.
Over the years, the Festival has been a zeitgeist indicator.
Faces and fashions, politicians and celebs have all been pulled into the event’s orbit.
Snow Queens and Top Blokes have been crowned in the past and rock royalty usually join politicians to open the Festival.
It’s not unusual to have had Prime Ministers such as Sir Rob Muldoon, Helen Clark, or Sir John Key sharing the stage with Shihad, The Exponents, Dave Dobbyn, or Aussie rocker Jimmy Barnes.
The Festival’s Friday night is always memorable for the live music and fireworks.
In more recent years the Festival’s comedy programme has seen those at the top of their game, including the Flight of the Conchords, Dai Henwood, Brendhan Lovegrove, Jeremy Corbett, Paul Ego, Urzila Carlson and Ben Hurley, entertain sell-out audiences.
By 1993 trans-Tasman winter flights were bringing Australian visitors direct to Queenstown as snowmaking guaranteed a longer, more consistent season.
In 1997, festival organisers took a punt bringing the dates forward to late June to position the festival at a time that it would signal that winter was open for business in Queenstown and at a time the town wasn’t already full.
The objective being to help extend the season and use the Festival as a powerful promotional tool.
Media coverage and celebrities attending the annual festival mean that no matter where you are in New Zealand in late June, you cannot escape that there is something major happening in Queenstown.
The 2017 Queenstown Winter Festival swings into action 22-25 June, a high-energy four-day format Festival with all that locals and several thousand visitors have come to expect – and a few surprises.
The new Queenstown Winter Festival Welcome on Thursday 22 June will be a special blend of Maori culture and contemporary entertainment.
Another new for 2017 is the Real Journeys Thank You Cruise where 90 of the region’s unsung heroes will be recognised and enjoy the Real Journeys Friday Night Party & Fireworks from the TSS Earnslaw.
A highlight of the extended daylong Auckland Airport Carnival will be the new Community Night Walking Parade.
Also added to the mix is a new Après Ski Bar & Dining Programme.
There’s something for all palettes from an exclusive chef’s menu dining experience through to a cocktail and night Bungy combo and a rib eating contest.
Quirky and fun elements also feature with iHeartRadio Day on the Bay’s The Hits Birdman, JUCY Undy 500 and Mitre 10 Mega Raft Race bringing out the crazy in the locals.
The roster of live local and New Zealand music across the four days is as good as ever with Anika Moa, Phoenix Foundation, Nomad, Brentwood, The Shambles and many other talented performers.
Comedy Night sold out within hours so another night of hilarity was added.
Also returning is the Queenstown Village Ice Rink, the sold out SKYCITY Ball and many other fabulous events.
The Festival is a reflection on what makes Queenstown and its people so great. It’s our Festival and you’re invited.
So snap up the last tickets, enter some of the events, or cheer from the side lines. See you out there.