More than a million people attended the Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth despite a week of bad weather

The sky grew darker by the minute, heavy clouds rolling in while families made their way through the entrance to the Calgary Stampede. One woman remarked, “Well, this certainly isn’t what I expected.” She wasn’t alone.

July is barely half over and Calgary has already almost doubled its normal rainfall for the entire month, recording 118.9 mm of precipitation as of July 18, when the monthly average is usually around just 65 mm.

As expected, those numbers made for a rather soggy Stampede, with almost every day of the annual 10-day festival being rained on — unusual, since Calgary on average normally only sees 13 days of rain in July.

The downpour made for a significant decrease in attendance numbers for this year’s Stampede, with cumulative attendance just surpassing the million mark at 1,088,000 — the lowest attendance since 1994, which saw 1,082,000 patrons pass through the gates.

Hayley Spurdle (left) and Baillie Scillitoe were more than pleased with this year’s soggy Stampede weather. “I think I almost prefer it this way,” Scillitoe commented, pointing out that boiling hot sun and sizzling black pavement are hardly conducive conditions to her and her friend’s favourite style of dress. Photo by Michaela RitchieIn an effort to boost attendance, Stampede officials cut the general admission from $18 to $5 between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. on July 14 and 15, and offered free admission in the morning on Sunday, July 17.

Half-price tickets were also made available for the evening rodeo and Grandstand Show on that final Sunday, but the cuts only brought in 151,063 Sunday Stampeders, making it the least popular Stampede day this year, despite the final day usually being one of the most popular days of the 10-day event.

However, it would appear that the rain didn’t put a damper on fans’ enjoyment of the midway and rodeo, despite the record low turnout.

“It definitely wasn’t what we expected at all,” said Hayley Spurdle on July 14.

“I think I almost prefer this,” Spurdle’s companion, Baillie Scillitoe, said of the overcast skies. “I mean, you come here on a hot day and there’s a ton of people and you’re just surrounded by all this hot black tarmac, no thanks,” she added, making a face of disgust just thinking about those sweltering conditions.

Stampede midway veteran Josef McClean (right) says he doesn’t mind the rain, despite having to deal with his booth flooding several times. Because the dart game is set up beneath an awning, McClean says sometimes the bad weather can even encourage business as guests rush to get out of the storm. Photo by Michaela Ritchie“This is nice,” said Scillitoe. “There’s some shade. We aren’t melting!”

Josef McClean, who has worked at the midway at various different games and attractions for the past 17 years, is more than familiar with the kind of crowd the outdoor event usually draws. But this year, he said, while manning his post at “Balloon Pop,” he noticed a thinning audience.

“A couple years back I didn’t even have to do a thing, I’d be sitting here and people would just be lining up to play my game. But this year, they’re really making me work for my money, these people. I have to get out and grab their interest,” he explained.

This can be challenging in extreme weather conditions, said McClean, whose booth was flooded out more frequently than in previous years.

Fortunately for Stampede-goers, the only rides that ever really shut down due to bad weather are those like the Ferris Wheel, rollercoasters, and the WestJet Skyride, which all operate on intricate track systems. Because of this, staff say it’s best to close the rides down in advance of really severe storms to ensure guests’ safety. Photo by Michaela Ritchie

“It’s been flooding in here like crazy, you wouldn’t believe it,” he said. “What actually happens is when it rains, because of the way the concrete is here, [the rain] comes down the strip and it just pools right here behind our booth, and everything gets soaked.” He gestures behind the counter of his booth to boxes brimming with stuffed toys and prizes, all packaged close together atop layers of plastic wrapping to minimize water damage.

But the midway veteran takes the weather in stride, saying that sometimes the rain can actually drive business to booths like his with protective awnings.

“When it does rain, we just hop up on the back counter here and shout at people to come play our game and get out of the rain.”

Other gaming booths are not so lucky, however, said “Long Range Basketball” employee Josh Kennedy, whose booth does not have the luxury of being covered. Kennedy spent this year’s Stampede bagging damp stuffed animals for his customers and running back and forth from nearby booths trying to stay dry during heavy downpours.

“It’s ruining our business, that’s for sure,” said Kennedy. “We try to stick it out, and use umbrellas, and let people play through, but a lot of them don’t want to be shooting hoops when it’s coming down that hard.”

As McClean explained, Stampede games, and some lower-octane attractions like the Rock N Roll obstacle course and Mardi Gras hall of mirrors, hardly ever shut down, except in the case of severe weather conditions. The other rides, however, are another story.

“The rides like the Ferris Wheel have it a little harder,” says McClean, “’Cause they run on tracks and they have to shut down if there’s too much water, ‘cause it means they won’t be able to slow down fast enough.”

Kathleen and Shawn Goertzen come to the Stampede every year with their children, come rain or shine. “It’s just something that you do,” said Kathleen. “When it’s like this, you just make sure to come prepared. We brought umbrellas for everyone, we brought jackets, blankets. We’re not going to let the rain stop us from having a good time!” Photo by Michaela RitchieAnna Campbell, an employee of the WestJet Skyview ride, explained that the frequency with which rides like the Ferris Wheel, rollercoasters, and Skyview had shut down this year was, in part, due to crowd complaints following mishaps in recent years that found some customers stuck on the rides briefly during the onset of heavy storms, which made it difficult for staff to get them down.

“Because of a hail incident last year with the Skyride, the operators this year have been much more careful watching the skies for any sign of trouble,” she said, adding that Stampede officials have since upgraded their weather predicting technologies.

“We’ve only shut down a couple of times so far,” she said of the Skyride in a July 14 interview. “Just trying to be proactive so that nobody gets stuck up there if things get really bad all the sudden.” Admission to the Skyride was free on the last Sunday of the Stampede — an attempt to keep business booming in the rare absence of stormy skies.

Fortunately, it would appear that only attractions with the most intricate track and electrical systems must abide by the rule that “electricity in the sky” means a shut down. Many of the food stands on site, for instance, operate out of fully enclosed structures, making them relatively rain-resistant.

Fans of the popular Niagara Falls log ride advise Stampede visitors to either come prepared, or don’t rain on their good time: “If you don’t want to get wet, then you shouldn’t have come to the Stampede when it’s going to rain!” Photo by Michaela Ritchie“It might be raining, but we’re still having a good time,” said Kathleen Goertzen, who attends the Stampede every year with her husband Shawn and their two children. “I definitely know some people who will let the bad weather stop them from coming down, but really it’s not that bad, it’s not even cold out!”

Goertzen said her children were able to enjoy 11 rides in under an hour — “That’s got to be a new record,” she laughed — due in large part to fewer people on the grounds than normal.

“And it’s nice because I’m not having to chase them around all day and be sweating to death. It’s actually refreshing.”

Certainly there are some Calgarians who let their spirits be dowsed by the rain, but as one Niagara Falls water slide customer put it: “If you don’t want to get wet, then you shouldn’t have come to the Stampede when it’s going to rain!”

mritchie@cjournal.ca