by Sue Ann Rybak
Chestnut Hill experienced a record crowd for what was the 6th annual Harry Potter Festival. It was a weekend that saw thousands crowd the neighborhood, looking to participate in dozens of Potter-themed events and dressed as their favorite characters from J.K Rowling’s remarkably successful novels.
Martha Sharkey, executive director of the Chestnut Hill Business District, said roughly 45,000 people attended this year’s festival and 7th Annual Brotherly Love Quidditch Tournament held on the grounds of Chestnut Hill College.
“This year’s turnout was incredible,” she said. “The festival has definitely organically grown over the past six years. Every year we make changes to the festival. Our goal is to make it the best experience possible not only for attendees but for the neighborhood as a whole.”
While many told the Local they enjoyed the weekend festivities, there were plenty of complaints of large crowds, long lines and snarled traffic, particularly during the day on Saturday, Oct. 22.
Chestnut Hill resident Adam Eyring, whose daughter attends J.S. Jenks Academy for the Arts and Sciences, said local residents spent hours navigating to and from their homes. He said festival organizers need to “set up satellite parking lots to alleviate the diverted traffic.”
“SEPTA should encourage people to park at a station stop or two away and ride the train or bus in cheap,” he added.
Chestnut Hill resident Haviva Goldman, whose children also attend Jenks, said “that with the national press and a huge number of followers on social media, it seemed inevitable that this year’s event would be huge.”
“Perhaps the weather was a slight blessing, given that better weather could have attracted an even bigger crowd,” said Goldman, who is president of Friends of J.S. Jenks, an independent nonprofit organization whose mission is to enhance the educational and enrichment opportunities at the elementary school in Chestnut Hill. “I think the festival grew even more than the event planners could have possibly prepared for.
“Obviously, everyone will have to take a closer look at how to plan better to handle the number of participants in terms of crowd control, parking, bathroom access, and food and merchandise availability in order to ensure that the event can be a positive experience both for the visitors and the Chestnut Hill community.”
She said “despite the less than optimal weather,” her group’s annual fundraiser, The Firebolt 5K and Nimbus Walk, which features a 5K run and 1K walk, continued to grow. This year’s event attracted more than 200 participants from all over the country.
Sheila Allen Avelin, owner of the Big Blue Marble Bookstore in Mt. Airy, agreed with Goldman.
“There wasn’t enough of anything,” she told the Local. “Not enough vendors, not enough food trucks, not enough porta potties, not enough Harry Potter merchandise at the participating brick-and-mortars. It definitely seems to have grown too fast.”
Sharkey said she was aware of the complaints.
“With the event just wrapping up over the weekend, we are going to be taking into consideration all the feedback we have received from attendees, local residents, business owners and community partners,” she said. “We want to make sure we are taking all the recommendations into consideration and making improvements, including increasing the number of restrooms and working closely with the police to manage crowds and monitor traffic.”
Sharkey said prior to the event, the CHBA worked very closely with police to attempt to address traffic control at various intersections, including setting up satellite parking sites in Chestnut Hill at the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill, 8855 Germantown Ave.; United Cerebral Palsy of Philadelphia and Vicinity, 102 E. Mermaid Lane; and the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, 7301 Germantown Ave.
She said in CHBA’s Harry Potter Festival Guide posted on its website, it encouraged people to consider taking SEPTA, ride sharing or taking a taxi or Uber to the event because of “the limited amount of parking in the historic district.”
She added that not all the feedback the CHBA received was negative.
“We heard a lot of positive feedback from many businesses,” she said. “Business owners enjoyed talking to visitors from all over the country, including North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, New York and New Jersey. A lot of people had a really great time, despite the weather. It was great to see all the smiling faces on Instagram. We began the Harry Potter Festival with about 800 posts under the hashtag Harry Potter Fanfest on Instagram, and now it has over 2,300 posts. There are always growing pains when you have events like this.
“As we move forward, it is very important that the business district and the Chestnut Hill community work together to improve this very successful event that has introduced thousands of people to Chestnut Hill.”
Many visitors to Chestnut Hill told the Local that they were having a good time despite the crowd.
Maryland resident Lou Sallmar, who came dressed as Rubeus Hagrid, said the dreary weather didn’t put a damper on his family’s experience at the festival.
“We came up on Thursday,” he said. “I am here with my grandchildren.”
When the Local asked him about this year’s attendance, he replied, “I love the crowd.”
New Jersey resident Serena Rice came to the festival with her two children, six-year-old Maddox and nine-year-old Alania.
“It’s a little cold, but the kids are having a great time,” she said.
Maddox said his favorite thing at the festival was making snitches and getting his own Hedwig. “Oh,” he added, and “being Harry.”
Maria Serrihima and her seven-year-old son, Cristin Cufolo, were in Chestnut Hill for their fourth Harry Potter Festival.
“We are both big Harry Potter fans,” said the Fishtown resident, as she tentatively watched her son diligently color an owl with a crayon. “We have seen all the movies and now Cristin is reading the first book.”
She added that every year the festival has something new. Serrihima said the weather didn’t deter her from coming because they look forward to the festival all year long. The smile on Cristin’s face confirmed that, despite the rain and long lines, he was having a great time.
Virginia residents Mike Hartley and Peggy Hartley, both in their 60s, drove more than five-and-a-half hours Friday night to bring their 12-year-old granddaughter, Savannah Bollhorst, to the festival.
“At times crowd control was a concern,” wrote Peggy in an email after the festival, “especially following the opening ceremony and waiting to get into places that served food, but we understood that, considering the size of the town itself. Our biggest issue was the lack of restrooms – even porta potties.
“We loved the experience – even with the few glitches. Every event has it’s growing pains, but it will not keep us from attending next year. We think this is a wonderful event and hope that it will continue. We’ll be back next year in full Harry Potter fashion.”
Sue Ann Rybak can be reached at 215-248-8804 or firstname.lastname@example.org.