Many communities herald autumn with school buses or Labor Day sales. In Gilbert, they watch things explode. “Chrysanthemums, crowns, peonies, diadems . . . ” says Lisa Taraborelli, listing items booked for explosion Saturday night.
“More than a thousand fireworks in all.” But no loud explosions, lest Gilbertians think their town is under siege. “We don’t use the ‘boomers,’ ” Taraborelli says, “because we want to be good neighbors.”
Every year, at winter’s end, cold-weather folk emerge from their homes to run and frolic and explain their pasty gams to anyone who’ll listen. It’s called the rites of spring, and people do it to bid goodbye to their harshest season. Out here, summer is the cruel season. So Gilbert will bid the shimmering asphalt, molten steering wheels and soaring temperatures adieu with the 15th annual So Long to Summer Fest, a fireworks-and-family way to celebrate the rites of fall.
So Long to Summer Fest invites East Valley families out into the cooling twilight at Freestone Park, where they’ll get a chance to see summer explode in a blaze of glory. “The fireworks are the grand finale of the night,” says Taraborelli, a Summer Fest programmer. “Kids and adults alike love it. To see ’em sitting back on the grass, watching those fireworks go off, that’s just a great feeling.”
But the fireworks mark only the conclusion of an evening that combines a state fair with the Fourth of July. For a blanket and a few bucks, families can enjoy live music, bound across inflatable playgrounds, dangle from a climbing wall and rediscover life without air conditioning.
“We have two great live bands, Sistah Blue, a wonderful R&B act,” Taraborelli says, “and Western Fusion, which is a little bit of rock and country.” The midway will offer little ones a chance to get a little air under them. “We’re going to have all kind of activities for kids and toddlers,” she says. “The train will be running, and we’ll have lots of inflatable play areas like Pirates of the Caribbean, which is a kind of inflatable obstacle course and slide all in one.”
Teens and tweeners can scale the perilous cliffs of the park’s climbing wall or take sopping vengeance upon each other at the fest’s Waterwars exhibit. “Waterwars is really popular. That’s where kids can launch water balloons back and forth at one another,” Taraborelli says. “It’s a lot of fun to get whole families in there — parents on one side, kids on the other.”
Cool-weather high jinks are fine for the young folk. But for dad, excitement is spelled “food court.” And So Long to Summer Fest does not disappoint. “Our local Ben & Jerry’s will be out with cups of ice cream,” Taraborelli says. “We’ll also have booths with fry bread, gyros and kettle corn. Waldo’s Barbecue will be there, and San Francisco Chocolate Factory, with their famous chocolate-covered cheesecake.” A full state fair-style menu is promised, with enough high-fat delicacies to make the surgeon general cringe.
This weekend will mark the 15th appearance of Summer Fest, which began in ’91 as a simple park opening. “Initially, it was a celebration for the opening of Crossroads Park, which was created out of a retention basin,” Taraborelli says. But the weather, mood and locale proved to be an inviting blend. Summer Fest, which moved to Freestone District Park three years ago, is projected to draw between 8,000 and 10,000 people.
Gilbert also uses Summer Fest to acquaint its citizens with their local resources. “A number of local businesses, city departments and nonprofits will also have booths there,” she says. Several will offer contests on prizes ranging from shopping sprees to Hawaiian vacations. But Taraborelli says the objective is to allow Gilbert to meet itself. “We have sense of community in Gilbert, and this is just a way of celebrating it with our neighbors.”
But that shouldn’t stop visitors from coming over to watch a bottle rocket or nosh a corn dog. “We draw people from all over the Valley,” Taraborelli says, “as well as folks from in and out of state. We get people from everywhere. It’s our way of welcoming everyone back outdoors.”
So Long to Summer Fest When: 6:30 p.m. Saturday (fireworks start around 10 p.m.)
Where: Freestone Park, 1045 E. Juniper Ave., Gilbert
Cost: $3 adults, $2 children 2 to 12
Information: (480) 503-6200 or