Wizarding Weekend expands with Atlantic City fan convention

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The beloved local festival celebrating all things fantastical and fun is expanding outside of Ithaca! Starting this August, Wizarding Weekend will be hosting a fan convention at the Showboat Hotel in Atlantic City. It’s one of several big changes the festival has announced recently.


Last Thursday, the organizers of Wizarding Weekend put out a call for board members for their new soon-to-be-official not-for-profit, FanUnity, Inc.

Interested parties were invited to a gathering at Comics for Collectors to learn more about what being a board member would entail and why Wizarding Weekend is forming a 501(c)3. The mission of FanUnity is to “Create fan-minded community celebrations of magic, science, and fantasy with an emphasis on STEM, higher education, and practical experience.”


New year, new organization, new event. Last year’s Wizarding Weekend took a significant financial hit due to a number of unfortunate circumstances. The weekend of the event was a cold and rainy one, and a limited number of volunteers made it hard to pull it all together.


“One of the things that we really learned the hard way last year was that rain is awful,” Darlynne Overbaugh, the festival’s creator said. “The 2015 event was like the perfect storm. We had a crazy social media presence which catapulted us to this extent, and it was a beautiful 70-degree day. You can’t go wrong with that in October.”


Subsequent festival weekends were never as lucky and every year at least one of the days had rain. Wizarding Weekend 2018 had rain the entire weekend and the projected attendance of 20,000 turned into half of that. The event was hurt financially because it was depending on certain aspects that were tied to attendance. Another lesson learned last year was that bringing celebrities to the event is an expensive aspect that Wizarding Weekend doesn’t really need.


“There’s a very big trend in the geek convention industry to bring in these big names and to sell experiences, and I think that belittles the event that we’ve created,” Overbaugh said. “I think that the main focus is really on the experience and the connections we make through the experience. So, we’re going to move away from that model and we’re going to try to forge our own path and do our thing our own way.”


This year the Ithaca event will prioritize the interactive experiences like wand dueling and Gorgekeep, the school of magic created by Overbaugh for the festival, that were such an integral part of the original event. New aspects of the event include a fan art contest. Fans are encouraged to create any kind of art that they want from their favorite fandom.


For several years the event has been operating through the Downtown Ithaca Alliance’s 501(c)3, which comes at a price. If funds go through DIA, the Alliance takes a cut. Kathy Servoss, one of the festival organizers, said the DIA has encouraged the festival to become its own 501(c)3 and has provided support for the event from the beginning. 


The new Atlantic City Wizarding Weekend will be more convention style, with an admission price of anywhere between $15 to $40 depending on the pass purchased.


Overbaugh never expected to be expanding the event this quickly, and when she was originally approached by Showboat Hotel to bring the festival to New Jersey she said no.


“I was ready to say no,” Overbaugh said. “And then they said ‘Well, what if we told you it was free?’”


As Overbaugh knows, magic isn’t free. While the new event isn’t exactly free, it was made significantly more affordable when the hotel compensated the room rental fee. One of the biggest differences of the events, when it comes to overhead costs, is that at the Showboat Hotel the event isn’t being planned over a city layout. Bathrooms are more easily provided, event space is more easily set up, etc.


Overbaugh reached out to some of the other geek-themed events that the hotel has worked with and heard good things. When she asked the hotel why they reached out to her for Wizarding Weekend, they told her they liked what the event was about.


“They felt that ours was high caliber, it was family-focused, it had a good following,” she said. “They wanted that feeling of community. That’s what they want the property to focus on.”


Overbaugh is already planning a separate school of magic for the Atlantic City event, based on south Jersey lore.


Since Wizarding Weekend started, attendees have asked that the event consider being held on a warmer weekend. But the summer is already packed with downtown events and Overbaugh wanted to keep the event close to Halloween for the spooky, fantastical themes of the holiday. With the addition of Atlantic City, the magic can continue during a warmer season. This year it will be held August 24 and 25, but might be moved to April or May in the future if the first year is successful.


The not-for-profit is still looking for members for the board of directors. Members will serve two-year terms (no term limits) and will be responsible for a range of things pertaining to the event: long and short-range planning to carry out the event’s mission; adopt an annual budget and provide fiscal oversight; recruit, orient, and develop board members; hire and evaluate the performance of the executive director (the position is first going to be filled by Kathy Servoss); evaluate the performance of the board and the organization; and establish policies for effective management of the organization. But if people who want to be involved in making the event happen don’t want to be on the board, Overbaugh said Wizarding Weekend is looking for support in all areas, including donations and volunteers.


“That’s really what Wizarding Weekend needs right now, is financial and able-body people support,” she said. “If people want to see it continue, we really need to see them step in and say ‘I can help with this aspect or that aspect.’”
The event has the inventory to continue offering the interactive aspects of the event for free, but it needs more people to make it happen and commit the time to put it together. For more information about donating or volunteering, or to sign up to be a board member, visit wizardingweekend.com.

Correction: The name of the hotel in Atlantic City is the Showboat Hotel, not the SteamBoat Hotel. Comments about the involvement of the DIA have been amended to better reflect the relationship between the festival and the Alliance.

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