Forty years ago as the summer season reached an end a small group of Gulf Shores area locals decided they needed a big fall party to celebrate a great year and the Shrimp Festival was born. Well, this festival is certainly not just for locals anymore. As it's grown over the years and now become the National Shrimp Festival, one of the biggest events in the south, as many as 300,000 attendees come back to the beach every fall for this family-oriented festival.
I certainly can't claim to have attended all 39 Shrimp Festivals but I've probably been to 25 or more and most years also serve as one of the hundreds of volunteers - a crucial program for the success of the event.
I'm happy to share a few tips for enjoying the Shrimp Festival from my personal perspective as a local:
1. Use the shuttles for transportation - Don't try to park near the festival site because nearby parking spots are almost non-existent. Shuttles cost $2 per passenger one way and run to and from Gulf Shores Winn-Dixie, Gulf Shores Brunos, Wal-Mart, Pier 33, Gulf State Park Campground, Gulf State Park Pavilion, Orange Beach Winn-Dixie, Orange Beach Wal-Mart Market, Orange Beach Publix and Flora-Bama Lounge. See shuttle schedule.
2. Attend on Thursday - We were delighted with the additional day when Thursday was added to the festival. You may even overhear the term "locals day" describing Thursday because locals flock to the fest that day since we know it's easier to navigate before the larger crowds arrive. Of course, the attendance has grown on this day too but I highly encourage you to arrive on Wednesday so you can enjoy the festival on day one.
3. Eat a Cajun Pistol - OMG you will see from the lines that everyone loves this seafood delicacy from the food vendor Rockin Roger's Cajun Cuisine on the East Boardwalk. It's a delicious mix of crab, crawfish and shrimp in an awesome sauce stuffed in a roll. Trust me you can't eat just one so go for two right from the beginning. I always eat a variety of wonderful foods and desserts but never miss the cajun pistols.
4. Pick up the official souvenir program - As soon as you arrive you will see a Chamber information booth providing the program that will be your guide to finding food, arts and crafts, fine arts, entertainment and a helpful map of the festival grounds.
5. Go the the Sand Sculpture Contest - With four age groups you'll see a big variety of creative art rising from your favorite white sandy beaches on Saturday (Oct 15) in the early afternoon, with judging at 3 p.m.
6. Invest in Art - There are so many wonderful works of art from a variety of media including painting, photography, jewelry, sculpture and more in the fine arts section. I personally recommend the watercolor works of Chris Hartsfield, a long-time Shrimp Fest artist, whose works grace most rooms at my house. I also love to browse the large arts and crafts section and buy unique home decor items as well as clothing and jewelry.
7. Research the bands in advance - Since there are two stages (East & West) it's helpful to make your music choices in advance. To make it easier to determine your priorities our website contains a description of each band performing at the Shrimp Festival along with a link to a sample of their music (if provided by the artist). Go to both the East Stage link and West Stage link for all the info you need for each day's musical entertainment.
8. Watch the Tip Tops - You will usually find lots of locals gathering to hear one of our favorite bands, a high-energy group from Mobile who perform on the East Stage on the first night (Thursday) from 8 - 10 p.m. Of course, we have lots of favorites and you will too.
9. Claim your t-shirt - The Alabama Gulf Coast Area Chamber of Commerce will have one or more tents selling the official 2011 Shrimp Fest t-shirts and other souvenirs. Don't buy the knock-offs, get the authentic t-shirt in either short or long-sleeve versions in a variety of colors. Again be sure to make this an early purchase for the best selection.
10.Buy a souvenir mug - Again in the fine art's section find the pottery of Steve & Dee Burrow, who are Gulf Shores residents. Each year they create a commemorative mug for the Shrimp Festival that you will want to collect and no doubt treasure. But get to their booth early because they always sell out.