It's tulip time in Holland without the festival

Holland’s 91st flower show played to a very small audience this year after the coronavirus pandemic forced the first-ever cancellation of the annual Tulip Time Festival.

The effect of the cancellation was strikingly obvious around town during what would have been the nine-day celebration of spring in early May.

Missing were the sights and sounds of an estimated 300,000 to 500,000 visitors from around the globe who typically flood into this community of 30,000 to enjoy one of America’s largest flower festivals.
The cancellation of the Tulip Time festival eliminated the traditional flood of visitors.
Festival goers packed the outdoor seating area at the Curragh Irish Pub in 2019.

The empty outdoor seating area at the Curragh Irish Pub this year symbolized a Tulip Time week without a festival.
In stark contrast, a comparative trickle of visitors wandered the city on foot and in vehicles to view millions of tulips planted in public parks, private fields, and along city streets. Many tulip watchers wore masks to ward off the virus and most everyone practiced safe social distancing as recommended by health officials.

Tiptoeing through the multicolored tulips symbolized the only activity left over from a mega-festival that traditionally schedules a full lineup of arts and food markets, exhibitions, carnivals, parades, and performances by national and local entertainers.
A gorgeous bed of tulips overlooks empty Civic Center Place parking lots that would normally be filled with festival games and carnivals for kids and adults.
Tip-toeing through the tulips was the only downtown activity leftover from the cancelled festival.

The relatively few visitors who gazed at the long-stemmed beauties pretty much confined themselves to the festival’s hotspots, which includes the Eighth Street corridor in the downtown shopping district.

Absence of activity

The absence of festival activity on Eighth Street further highlighted the stillness brought on after Michigan’s governor issued a statewide “Stay Home, Stay Safe” order March 23 that closed downtown retail shops and restaurants.
Dutch Treat Concessions was the lone vendor on Eighth Street during Tulip Time week.
During this unexpected version of Tulip Time week, there were no klomps of wooden shoes worn by Dutch dancers during daily presentations. The distinct scent of carnival food — such as elephant ears, french fries, corn dogs, and Italian sausage — didn’t drift over downtown because dozens of concessions stands that normally dot the main thoroughfare were absent. 

At the Holland Area Arts Council on East Eighth Street, major exhibitions of artwork, homemade quilts, and Dutch Dance costumes fell victim to the festival’s termination.

Parades and carnivals

There were no shoulder-to-shoulder crowds along Eighth Street to cheer the Volksparade and its street scrubbing on Wednesday, the Kinderparade on Thursday, or the Muziekparade on Saturday. The rows upon rows of bleacher seating were never installed.
Seeking direction, this young biker was among the relatively few visitors to downtown Holland during the first Sunday of festival week.
The visitors were few and far between at Window on the Waterfront Park during the first weekend of the cancelled festival.

Also missing on Eighth Street were the excursion buses filled with out-of-town visitors and the Tulip Time trolleys offering guided tours.

Emptiness also descended on the large parking lots outside the Civic Center Place on West Eighth Street. During the festival’s first weekend, the south lot usually radiates the enthusiasm of children delighting in rides and games provided by the Kinder Carnival. The north lot normally would be home to a carnival geared toward adults, where thunderous thrill rides trigger piercing screams.

Beyond the vacant parking lots, the darkened Civic Center Place had to remove the welcome mat for a couple of performances and the ever-popular Marketplaats, which dishes up Dutch-inspired food and goods. 

Hotspots quiet

The odd quiet of a Tulip Time on hold extended to three other festival hotspots near downtown — Window on the Waterfront Park, Centennial Park, and Windmill Island.
The signs at Windmill Island reminded visitors that the pandemic restricted activities at the park.
Window on the Waterfront kept its promise of showing off a multitude of tulip beds but failed to display a public-art installation known as Klompen Garden — 20 extra-large replicas of wooden shoes created by amateur and professional artists. The Moederdag (Mother’s Day) Market also was a no-show in the park on the festival’s last scheduled day.

Centennial Park — with its massive gazebo, towering fountain, and goldfish pond—blossomed with tulips but couldn’t act as the traditional spot for the Artisan Market, where more than 200 artists display their work on the festival’s opening weekend.
While surveying the island tulip beds, a young visitor shields himself from the sun and the coronavirus.

Signs posted at Windmill Island reminded visitors of the new normal: Attractions are closed; no restrooms; maintain proper social distancing. 

The few visitors to the island could view the authentic Dutch windmill but were barred from touring the interior of the 125-foot structure. The island shops provided no access. The antique Dutch carousel sat motionless and the giant Amsterdam street organ remained silent.

Empty venues

Canceling the festival also had a ripple effect on a number of community venues that step up each year to provide space for planned performances — Central Wesleyan Church, Knickerbocker Theatre, Beechwood Church, Holland Community Theatre, Hope Church, Evergreen Commons Center, DeWitt Auditorium, Haworth Inn and Conference Center, and Jack H. Miller Center on the Hope College campus.

The shops at Windmill Island were not open for business.
The interior of the towering windmill was off limits to visitors.
A sign in downtown Holland echoes the optimism of Tulip Time organizers who have begun planning for the 2021 festival.
But the pandemic did more than just devastate the festival’s schedule of events. The cancellation of the treasured tradition also struck a major blow to the community’s spirit and economic well-being.

Despite the setback, Tulip Time organizers are optimistically looking ahead to the 2021 festival. One sign in the window of a downtown Holland business summed up their optimism: “Where there are tulips there is hope.”

This article is part of The Lakeshore, a new featured section of Rapid Growth focused on West Michigan's Lakeshore region. Over the coming months, Rapid Growth will be expanding to cover the complex challenges in this community by focusing on the organizations, projects, programs, and individuals working to improve conditions and solve problems for their region. As the coverage continues, look for The Lakeshore publication, coming in 2020.
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