Browsers and shoppers packed Spice Village to the brim on Friday, with visitors stopping by the downtown novelty store during a wild weekend in Waco that tied an arc around a stellar spring break for local attractions.
“It’s been like this all week,” said Spice Village owner Jennifer Wilson, surveying the hectic scene during a break from the action.
Wilson said it was the first time in three years that the collection of stores at River Square Center, Second Street and University Parks Drive had been able to take advantage of spring break. Last year, a pipe that burst during the February ice storm put operations in limbo weeks later. Previously, COVID-19 restrictions were taking their toll.
On Friday, Waco was enjoying the preferable strain of spring fever, the glorious weather combining with a packed calendar of events to create an atmosphere filled with dollar signs. Lines were long at Silos Baking Co. and Magnolia Press. McLennan County deputies directed traffic, including parents pushing strollers, near the Cameron Park Zoo entrance all week. The Ferrell Center parking lot nearly filled up on Friday afternoon when the Baylor University Women overwhelmed 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 5-minute drive became a 20-minute ride on Friday when she delivered items to the Mayborn Museum on University Parks Drive.
“There was an incredible amount of incoming traffic in Waco. Parking lots were packed at River Square, City Hall and the Convention Center,” Pendergraft said. “It felt like a throwback to the pre-pandemic days, in terms of traffic and tourists. … Magnolia, Dr Pepper Museum, Cameron Park Zoo, they all contributed to what we saw.
Everyone was on deck at the Cameron Park Zoo, and the Waco Convention Center loaned the attraction four staff members in the blink of an eye, Pendergraft said.
New hotels continue to open locally, which means occupancy rates may drop even as Waco strives to maintain its reputation as a tourist destination. But those rates don’t go 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 El Paso and McAllen,” she said. “The top five cities are always vying for position. Staying in the top five is very respectable.
Putting recent crowds into context, Pendergraft said six local hotels sold out on March 8, the Tuesday before the Silos spring.
“Yes sir, we are experiencing high occupancy for the past two weeks with all of Spring Break,” said Justin Edwards, regional general manager of the Waco Hilton and Courtyard Downtown, in an email response to questions.
“It was exciting to have the feeling of pre-COVID times in the hotel,” he said. ” Where do they come from ? Everywhere, and they don’t stay just one night, but more than three. When they check in, we give them the locally owned and edited ‘TravelHost’ magazine and they are amazed at how much there is to do in Waco. When they leave, many say they will return because they ran out of time but no things to do.
“Waco has a lot going for it and a high five to (City Manager) Bradley Ford and his team,” said Edwards, who is also chairman 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 travelers during spring break this year is dwarfed from last year.
“My particular hotel sold out pretty much every night,” she said. “We do an average run of 60% to 80% per night, but the difference is for all Spring Break travelers. When we check in customers, we always ask them what brings them to Waco. It’s nice to hear that many are just tourists in town for spring break.
“It’s nice to get a glimpse of what our pre-COVID days were like.”
Magnolia spokesman John Marsicano said last weekend’s Spring at the Silos crowds “certainly resembled pre-pandemic numbers.”
Christine Boyce, of 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 trip including 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 houses,” Halloran said.
The family members said they were fans of “Fixer Upper,” the reality show that launched Chip and Joanna Gaines on their way to stardom.
“Without it, we wouldn’t have known it existed,” Boyce said.
Despite gas 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 month.
“What are we buying? Things we don’t need,” Jayme Smith said, smiling before listing favorites that include candles and baby items. She said she loved the Spice Village experience and that her husband had grown up here.
Going through his records, Wilson said about 800 people crammed into Spice Village most weekdays during spring break. Weekends do more.
“We see day trippers, people from the Panhandle, Amarillo and Abilene. We’ve noticed a trend of people from outside of Texas traveling to Dallas-Fort Worth and then to Waco, Austin and San Antonio, trying to better understand the Texas experience,” said Wilson, who often chats with the buyers.
She said weekends usually bring travelers from outside of Texas.
“Missouri, Minnesota, we saw a ton of Minnesota, which is weird,” Wilson said. “I spoke with a woman who told me she came to Texas to warm up. It was 19 degrees back home, about 40 degrees here that day. I guess 40 feels better than what ‘she has left.
Dennis Phipps owns Junque in the Trunk, an antique and custom furniture store on La Salle Avenue. He said business was good but unpredictable, including during spring break, and out-of-state customers accounted for between 75% and 80% of sales. One example walked through his door on Friday, when a man from Mobile, Alabama ordered a workbench and kitchen island.
“People saw me on ‘Fixer Upper’ and I have 90,000 followers on Facebook,” Phipps said. “Two groups of women stopped, said their friends were here before and told them they had to pass. I’m sending a table to Wisconsin next week, a hutch to Oregon. This week we made two tables, a bookcase, and custom shutters for a home here in Waco.
He said four employees did manual labor while he ran the place.
“Without a doubt, without a doubt,” Phipps said when asked if the trade jumped after Magnolia entered and grew in popularity.
“But I don’t really work a day, I just have so much fun,” he said.