The North Carolina Whirligig Festival in Wilson

2023 Whirligig Festival Dates: November 4-5

The annual Whirligig Festival in Wilson, North Carolina is a great day of family fun. While the website indicates they focus on art in motion, there was a large contingent of local vendors displaying their soaps, candles, clothing, and other goods.

Wilson Whirligig Festival booths and attendees in front of Town Hall building.

The Whirligig Festival is usually held the first weekend in November in Historic Downtown Wilson.

What’s a Whirligig?

If you’re not from the area, you may be wondering what a whirligig is and why it warrants a festival.

Whirligigs are defined as “a toy that spins around, for example, a top of a pinwheel” (courtesy of Oxford languages).

But Wilson, NC takes it to a whole new level. Vollis Simpson, a farm machinery repairman, started making large whirligigs from scrap metal on his farm in Wilson County. He continued making his sculptures until he passed away in 2013 at the age of 94.

“Large” means 20 to 50+ feet tall. And his pieces have many moving parts that twist and turn in different ways when the wind blows. Some even act out scenes when they move, like two men sawing a log.

View of Vollis Simpson whirligigs from directly below looking up.

Thirty of his pieces were moved to a dedicated area in Wilson, creating the Whirligig Park. They continue to be maintained and provide free enjoyment for anyone who comes to view them.

For many people, it’s like watching a circus in the sky. Colorful movement keeps you enthralled as you enjoy the scenes playing out.

The festival honors Simpson and his take on whirligigs.

Whirligig Festival Events

Like many North Carolina festivals, runners can register for the 5K Run/Walk held on Sunday.

The Whirligig festival also has several art contests, setting it apart from other festivals like the NC Seafood Festival.

There are three competitions, “Build Your Own Whirligig”, “Chalk Art” and, “Whirligig Festival Memories” (photography).  The Build Your Own Whirligig and Chalk Art competitions have a separate category for children 16 and under.

What To Do at the Whirligig Festival

The festival area spans over 10 blocks of Historic Downtown Wilson. Streets are lined with food trucks, food stands, and local vendors.

Several downtown stores remain open if you’d like a sit-down meal or a chance to do some shopping.

There were several vendors that weren’t at other festivals I’ve attended including local artists showing their photography and paintings.

Also unique to this festival was the number of vendors selling handmade soap, candles, and bath scents. As you walk down the street, wafts of fresh scents float by.

Homemade wooden signs saying Farm Fresh and Welcome from a local vendor.

Music was a big focus of the festival with three stages hosting a variety of local talent. Of course, Whirligig Park is part of the festival and home to the main stage.

One of the best features was Altec offering rides up in their utility truck buckets for a birds-eye view.

A fun stop was the Beer and Bones section which had several vendors offering giant turkey legs and beer. This was a bit odd but seemed like a popular area.

Another great feature was Casita’s Brewing Company near the Whirligig Park with its outdoor Beer Garden. Many attendees were enjoying the beautiful day with food at the bright tables.

Tips for Enjoying the Whirligig Festival

When to Arrive and Where to Park

The festival runs Saturday 10 am – 5 pm with an after-party, and Sunday 12 pm – 5 pm. You have two choices for easy parking, arrive right at 10 am, or after 12 pm as the early attendees are leaving.

The festival website offers a map with 8 suggested parking areas. It’s a little confusing though. I aimed for parking lot #3 and it turns out there’s a lot on both sides of the street. The one on the right had a sign saying no festival parking at one end and public parking at the other.

Speaking to locals, it turns out this is parking for an adjacent apartment building, but there is some public parking available. However, the festival meant for the official lot to be the one on the other side of the street.

Model airplane made out of recycled diet coke cans.

Luckily for me, I arrived just after 12 pm and a few people were leaving so I got a spot.

With parking all over the place, it can be a bit maddening. If one lot is full, you have to weave through a few downtown blocks to reach the next one.

I would aim for the lots furthest from the festival which would be 308 Pine Street West and 206 Broad Street West.

The map indicated trolley stops, but I didn’t see a trolley while I was there and even the furthest lots are easy walking distance.

Festival Map

There’s a map online with the general festival areas and parking. It also indicates where you can find ATMs, stages, restrooms, and beer.

When you arrive, there are large maps with “you are here” on them and paper maps with more specific information at various locations.

What to Bring

Sunscreen is always something to keep on hand with outdoor festivals. You may also want to bring some water. There is plenty of liquid refreshment around, and a few places were selling water for $1.50 a bottle which isn’t bad, but you have to stand in line to get one.

Most vendors accept credit cards, but I like to bring cash to help small businesses. Credit card readers take a portion of the transaction and eat away at proceeds, especially on small purchases.

Navigating the Festival with Large Groups and Families

Since the festival is spread out over a wide area, it doesn’t feel crowded even with a lot of people. Large groups were able to easily stay together and enjoy their visit.

Front of Casitas Brewing Company building with line of people waiting.

It’s still always a wise idea to note a location as the official “meet up” spot in case you become separated. An easy location in Downtown Wilson is the police department right next to the BMX bike ramp. This is an easy point of reference for small children to identify, and it’s out of the way.

There were also several police officers wandering the festival as their offices are right in the area.

Final Thoughts on the Whirligig Festival

At only an hour or so from the Raleigh and Durham areas, the Wilson Whirligig Festival should be on your list.

It was great to see vendors that haven’t appeared at other festivals, and the displays from local artists were a treat.

I also enjoyed the ability to wander around without feeling crowded. It’s a laid-back festival where you can enjoy some music, do a little shopping, and grab some great food without jostling through crowds or waiting in hour-long lines.

With a Kids’ Stage and bouncy house area, your little ones will also have a blast. The Altec bucket rides were popular with kids who received orange vests and yellow hats as part of the deal. To be honest, most of them looked more comfortable on the way up than their parents.

This is one of the top festivals in North Carolina so grab the family and your wallet and head out next November.

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