A decade of family delights

For Richelle Waldron it was "beautiful". For Sue Morrison-Bailey it was about the smiles on the children's faces. For Jade Gillies it was the family atmosphere.

Everyone loves Kidzone.

For the young and the young at heart, the annual ILT Kidzone Festival has become an integral part of the Southland calendar.

Crowds travel from all over the province, if not further, for their chance to play, create, and have fun.

Today the festival wraps up for another year.

At 3.30pm weary youngsters will shuffle towards the gates at the James Hargest College senior campus, as exhausted but exhilarated volunteers and a few paid staff begin cleaning and packing up the hundreds of activities which have been enjoyed by children and their families for the past six days.

This year is perhaps more noteworthy than most others - it is the festival's 10th anniversary.

It has been a long journey from those early days, when the fledgling festival attracted just 2500 people, and ran over four days.

Today about 11,500 people flock through the gates, eager to take part in the more than 150 activities on offer.

But in 2005 it was a different story.

Organisers, unsure of how well Southland would embrace the concept, kept the festival deliberately small - just 2500 tickets were put up for sale, and there were 24 themed areas.

The idea came from a successful children's fun festival in Warrnambool, Australia. Morrison-Bailey had attended the festival and saw its Southland potential.

She pitched the idea to Venture Southland creative projects manager Angela Newell, who in turn discussed it with local school teacher and creative mastermind Richelle Waldron.

From there the idea grew.

Newell, an expert at generating funding, took on the role of securing finance.

Waldron, who had previously run other successful children's events in the South, including the popular Fairytales in the Park, took up the festival director role, pouring her creative energies and ideas into the event for seven years.

Gillies, as events co-ordinator at Venture, was another instrumental team member.

In those early days roles were interchangeable, and often overlapped.

Everyone simply jumped in and did what was needed to get the project off the ground, Waldron says.

The timeframe was short. Initial planning started in 2004 but by the time funding was secured, from the Invercargill Licensing Trust and Community Trust of Southland, there was just three months until launch day.

Newell remembers that while it was not a hard sell - everyone loves the idea of kids having fun and spending quality time with their families - people were unsure just how successful the event would be.

It was all hands on deck. Family and friends were roped in to help put the festival together. And it was oily rag stuff. While funders had been generous, there was no stock, nothing previously built, so they started from scratch.

Waldron's father Fred has fond memories of building sets while her mother took on a key role in the kitchen once the festival was running.

The Foveaux Harmony Chorus, of which Waldron is a member, was called on at rehearsals to help cut out thousands of fabric templates, bound for little hands in the festival sewing room.

Friends were often helping at 4am, stringing up signs with cable ties.

Gillies has called on his parents, sisters and other family for help - his sister is responsible for the Dr Seuss characters greeting festival-goers this year.

Even his young son Tiaki has played an important role. Accompanying Dad to each of the festivals since he was a baby, the 7-year-old now has his own T-shirt, proclaiming him as a "director-in-training".

For Newell, the festival has always been an "amazing team effort".

"It really is an incredible team. It has been an amazing team-building kind of festival, in that so many people have brought in ideas and come up with innovative solutions to things."

For Morrison-Bailey, that commitment has been such that even though she has since moved to Australia, each year she returns to Southland to co-ordinate the hundreds of volunteers needed to make the festival run smoothly.

And run smoothly it mostly does. But there have been hiccups.

There was the time vandals broke in and stole the plug out of the giant pool used for the paddle boats.


"Mr Fix It" Nick Round-Turner, whose intuition must have been on overdrive that night, arrived at the school at 3am with a feeling that "something wasn't right". He was greeted by the sight of an empty pool and police officers arresting a group of youths. A few hours later he was back, having fashioned a wooden plug in his workshop. The plug is still used today.

Another year, a pipe burst, knocking out the school's heating. Rather than have festival-goers freeze in the frigid Southland winter, giant gas heaters were brought in from Hirequip at last minute.

And then there was the time Newell "misplaced" the master key to the college. It was found, finally, in a rubbish bin filled with the scraps from the cooking room.

The activity that year was smoothies. And by that time of day, the milk did not smell good.

It was not a pleasant experience, by all accounts.

The 2013 arson attack that destroyed the school's home economics room also caused problems. The room was central to Kidzone operations and was where all the volunteers' food was cooked, so it's demise meant alternative arrangements had to be made - not a simple matter when you are catering for more than 100 people a day.

But 10 years on there have clearly been lessons learned.

Kidzone director Laura Russell, who has run the festival for the past three years, maintains that if the formula is successful, it needs no changing.

Indeed, other than its size, there have been few big changes to the festival in the years since it started. Instead, processes have been streamlined to make them more efficient.

Changes have been made to the staff structure, particularly with the management of volunteers, to allow more delegation.

The number of activities has grown - jumping from 24 themed areas in 2005 to more than 150 activities today, and the number of tickets offered for sale has increased nearly five-fold.

The festival expanded from four days to five days in its third year after it became so popular tickets were being purchased and then onsold at hugely inflated prices, Waldron says.

Funding has also increased as community funders have seen how successful the event has been.

Today the main funder is still the ILT, which this year gave $48,000, bringing its total to $392,000, but the ILT Foundation and Community Trust of Southland are also major supporters.

But the essence of the festival remains the same - providing kids and their families with fun and stimulating activities, at an affordable price.

But that doesn't mean the development has stopped and there is talk of franchising the idea across the country.

"It's a constant moving feast. We never get complacent and go ‘oh, we've got it right now'."

"[We are] constantly looking at developing, improving and growing," Newell says.

The Southland Times