Browsers and buyers packed Spice Village to the brim Friday, visitors stopping at the novelty shop downtown during a wild weekend in Waco that tied a bow around a stellar spring break for local attractions.
“It’s been like this all week,” Spice Village proprietor Jennifer Wilson said, surveying the hectic scene during a pause in the action.
Wilson said this was the first time in three years the collection of shops in River Square Center, Second Street and University Parks Drive, could enjoy spring break. Last year, a pipe that burst during the February ice storm placed operations in limbo weeks later. Previously, COVID-19 restrictions took a toll.
On Friday, Waco was enjoying the preferable strain of spring fever, the gorgeous weather combining with a loaded events calendar to create an atmosphere replete with dollar signs. Lines were long at Silos Baking Co. and Magnolia Press. McLennan County deputies all week directed traffic, including parents pushing strollers, near the Cameron Park Zoo entrance. The Ferrell Center parking lot came close to filling Friday afternoon, when the Baylor University women swamped the University of Hawaii in the first round of March Madness.
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Carla Pendergraft, who markets the Waco Convention Center, said a typically 5-minute drive became a 20-minute journey Friday, when she delivered items to the Mayborn Museum on University Parks Drive.
“There was a wonderful amount of traffic coming into Waco. The parking lots were packed at River Square, City Hall and the Convention Center,” Pendergraft said. “It looked like a return to the pre-pandemic days, in terms of traffic and tourists. … Magnolia, the Dr Pepper Museum, Cameron Park Zoo, they all contributed to what we’ve been seeing.”
It was all hands on deck at Cameron Park Zoo, and the Waco Convention Center loaned the attraction four staffers in a pinch, Pendergraft said.
New hotels continue to open locally, meaning occupancy rates may go down even as Waco strives to maintain its reputation as a tourist destination. But those rates are not going down without a fight, Pendergraft said.
“Hotel rooms don’t fill up as quickly, but our occupancy rate in February was 68.4%, third behind only El Paso and McAllen,” she said. “Cities in the top five always jockey for position. Staying in the top five is very respectable.”
Putting recent crowds in context, Pendergraft said six local hotels reported full houses March 8, the Tuesday before Spring at the Silos.
“Yes, sir, we’re experiencing high occupancy during the last two weeks with all the spring breakers,” said Justin Edwards, area general manager for the Waco Hilton and Courtyard Downtown, in an email response to questions.
“It has been exciting to have the feeling of pre-COVID times in the hotel,” he said. “Where are they coming from? Everywhere, and they are not just staying one night, but three plus. When they check in, we give them ‘TravelHost’ magazine that is owned and edited locally and they are surprised to see how much there is to do in Waco. When they check out, many say they will be back because they ran out of time but not stuff to do.
“Waco has a lot going on and high-five to (City Manager) Bradley Ford and his team,” said Edwards, who is also chair of the Waco Tourism Public Improvement District.
Karli Fletcher, who manages TownPlace Suites Waco South, echoed Edwards’ assessment. Fletcher, also president of the local lodging association, said the number of spring break travelers this year is dwarfing that of last year.
“My hotel specifically has sold out just about every night,” she said. “We do an average run anywhere from 60% to 80% per night, but the difference is all spring break travelers. As we check guests in we always ask what brings them to Waco. It’s nice to hear many are just tourists in town for spring break.
“It’s nice to feel a glimpse of what our pre-COVID days were like.”
Magnolia spokesperson John Marsicano said the crowd at last weekend’s Spring at the Silos “certainly resembled pre-pandemic numbers.”
Christine Boyce, from Rockford, Illinois, joined other family members in treating their mother, Sue Halloran, of Paris, Illinois, to an 80th birthday trip to Waco. Boyce researched where to go and what to do, the journey to include stops at Magnolia, Balcones Distilling and Homestead Heritage for a meal.
“We took a tour, and were very impressed with the old buildings, the old homes,” Halloran said.
Family members said they were fans of “Fixer Upper,” the reality show that launched Chip and Joanna Gaines on their path to stardom.
“Without it, we wouldn’t have known this existed,” Boyce said.
Despite gasoline prices hovering around $4 a gallon for regular unleaded, Jayme Smith and her daughter, Reeyse Smith, traveled to Waco on Friday from Dallas, visiting Spice Village as they do every three or four months.
“What do we buy? Stuff we don’t need,” said Jayme Smith, smiling before listing favorites that include candles and baby items. She said she enjoys the Spice Village experience, and her husband de ella grew up here.
Pursuing her records, Wilson said about 800 people have crowded into Spice Village most weekdays during spring break. Weekends bring out more.
“We’re seeing day-trippers, people from the Panhandle, Amarillo and Abilene. We’ve noticed a trend of people from outside Texas flying into Dallas-Fort Worth, then driving to Waco, Austin and San Antonio, trying to get a better feel for the Texas experience,” said Wilson, who chats often with shoppers.
She said weekends typically bring travelers from outside Texas.
“Missouri, Minnesota, we’ve seen a ton from Minnesota, which is odd,” Wilson said. “I talked with a woman who said she came to Texas to get warm. It was 19 degrees back home, about 40 degrees here that day. I guess 40 feels better than what she left.”
Dennis Phipps owns Junque in the Trunk, an antique and custom furniture emporium on La Salle Avenue. He said business is good but unpredictable, including during spring break, and estimated out-of-state customers account for 75% to 80% of sales. An example he walked through his door on Friday, when a man from Mobile, Alabama, ordered a work bench and kitchen island.
“Folks have seen me on ‘Fixer Upper,’ and I have 90,000 followers on Facebook,” Phipps said. “Two groups of women stopped by, said their friends were here before and told them they had to stop by. I’m sending a table to Wisconsin next week, a hutch to Oregon. This week we’ve made two tables, a bookcase and custom shutters for a home here in Waco.”
He said four employees perform manual labor, while he runs the place.
“Without a doubt, without a doubt,” Phipps said when asked if trade emerged following Magnolia’s entry and growing popularity.
“But I don’t really work a day, I’m having so much fun,” he said.