Freedom Festival 2019: Cedar Rapids gearing up for annual patriotic parade of festivities

Ben Roberts/Freelance

ABOVE: Mike Trundle makes his way through the parade route during the 2018 Freedom Fest parade
Ben Roberts/Freelance ABOVE: Mike Trundle makes his way through the parade route during the 2018 Freedom Fest parade through Cedar Rapids' New-Bo District and Czech Village. This year's parade will follow the same route on June 29.

Get ready for some red, white and boom as the Cedar Rapids Freedom Festival explodes through the metro area June 20 to July 4.

Two of the more popular signature events are growing, said Carissa Johnson, the nonprofit festival’s events and marketing director.

DockDogs, the aquatic fetching competition where every canine becomes a retriever, is expanding from three to four days, June 27 to 30. Events will be staged on a riverside dock and pool on the front lawn of the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library, 1400 Inspiration Place SW.

New to the mix are Dueling Dogs competitions, where two pooches go head-to-head simultaneously, soaring from the same platform to retrieve their toys.

“I’m very excited to see how that looks this year,” Johnson said.

The traditional DockDogs competitions take over June 29 and 30, where furry fliers vie for honors in Outdoor Big Air, Extreme Vertical, Speed Retrieve and Iron Dog Rankings categories. Dogs don’t need a pedigree to compete — community canines can also get in on the action. For participation and registration details, go to or


Another big change began last year as an alternate site after rain grounded Balloon Glow on Brucemore’s front lawn. An initial switch to the Cedar Rapids Country Club was recently nixed, in favor of easier parking and access to the Sinclair Levee on the NewBo side of the river. That’s where the event moved last year, and it proved to be a good fit, especially in terms of space, Johnson said.

“We outgrew the space,” she said of the traditional site on Brucemore mansion’s front lawn. “It got to be so crowded. It’s an awesome venue, and a great space, but we just outgrew it.”


The tethered balloon event also has attracted a record number of hot-air balloons, with nine signed up initially. Alisabeth Von Presley will rock the stage, and food vendors will be on-site.

Citing safety as the “number one concern,” she said parking concerns along the narrow streets by the country club were a driving force in going back to the levee’s wide-open green space and nearby parking lots on both sides of the river. Free shuttles will be offered from Kingston Stadium, 907 15th St. SW; Parking Lot 44, 150 Ninth Ave. SE; and from downtown Cedar Rapids, Eastbank Venue, 97 Third Ave. SE; and White Star Ale House, 305 Second Ave. SE.


The Eastern Iowa Arts Academy is folding its Volta Youth Music Festival into the Freedom Festival.

“It just made sense to work together,” Johnson said.

Music will run from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. June 29 at NewBo City Market, 1100 Third St. SE. The lineup not only features local youth musicians, but seasoned pros, including The Surf Zombies at 10:45 a.m., the 34th Army Band’s Scrap Metal at 2 p.m., NAOMI at 7:05 p.m., Running in Place at 8:05 p.m. and Alisabeth Von Presley with the academy’s youth performers at 8:45 p.m. Admission is free until 5 p.m., when a Freedom Festival button is your ticket to ride the musical waves.

The music festival falls on the biggest Freedom Festival day in the NewBo District. The Building Block Extravaganza inside NewBo City Market and Imagination Square! is out on the market lawn. Both kick off at 9 a.m. and run until 2 p.m.

At 10 a.m. that day, the Freedom Festival Parade will start marching from Ninth Avenue and Third Street SE in the NewBo District, continuing along Third Street to 16th Avenue SE, crossing the bridge into Czech Village, ending on C Street SW.

“We’ve used that route for several years, and it works great,” Johnson said. “It’s an awesome way to bring people down to that area. A lot is happening there right now. It’s booming.”

This old-fashioned queue of folks on floats and on foot, as well as two wheels and four, typically draws 100 entries and 15,000 spectators. This year’s theme is “Red, White, and Blue.”


An event that’s been launching the festival for years is boasting the largest attendance since the June 20 Tribute to Heroes became a dinner event, Johnson said.

The keynote speaker is Chad Hennings, a Benton Community High School graduate, Air Force veteran and retired NFL defensive tackle who won three Super Bowls with the Dallas Cowboys. Five local “everyday heroes” will be recognized that night: Ron Dirks, Albert Etzel, Mike Sankot and the late Keith Westercamp. Registration is closed for this event.


All eyes and ears will turn toward downtown Cedar Rapids on the Fourth of July for a full slate of activities from sunup to sundown.

“The Fourth of July is jam-packed,” Johnson said.

Festivities begin on the right foot — or left — with the 34th annual Fifth Season Races. The 8K, 5K and three kids’ races step off from Greene Square at 8 a.m.

Pancakes and music will be dished up side by side inside Veterans Memorial Building on the Second Avenue Bridge from 8 a.m. to noon.

“This is a great way to kick off everyone’s Fourth of July,” Johnson said. “The pancakes are so delicious. It’s the only thing I ate all day last year, and it was the best meal I’ve ever had.”

On your way in and out, check out the classic car show on the bridge. Serving time for the breakfast has been lengthened by one hour to coincide with the revved up revelry that also runs from 8 a.m. to noon, Johnson noted.

The festival’s grand finale begins at 4 p.m. on the Second Avenue Bridge, with kids’ games and activities, food and beverages and music of all stars and stripes. (The Third Avenue Bridge is closed for repairs, so that site is off-limits this year.)


Bring your chairs and blankets, kids and coolers (soft-sided only), but leave pets, sparklers, firecrackers and fireworks at home.

J & M Displays of Yarmouth will have more than enough fireworks to fill the night sky. The corresponding music will be piped through speakers on the bridge, or tune in to KHAK 98.1 on your radio to hear the soundtrack to the sparkling spectacle.

The other prime location for viewing the fireworks is the McGrath Amphitheatre, just down the river at 475 First St. SW. Gates open at 4 p.m., and the music starts at 5 with the local Boot Jack Band, followed by returning headliner The Johnny Holm Band at 7 p.m. and, of course, the fireworks at 9:45 p.m.


It takes a village to stage an urban festival of this magnitude — with between 800 and 900 volunteers.

A big push comes each year for the Win-Win-Win program, where teams of volunteers receive $25 per person per shift to donate to local charities and nonprofits. All the slots are filled for this year, but Johnson said it’s not too early to reach out to her for 2020s celebration (

While the festival runs just three weeks, the staff works year-round to make everything run smoothly.

“It’s our 36th year,” Johnson said. “We started with just fireworks, and now there are over 20 events we produce and plan.”

The list grows even longer with another 20 or more affiliated events, from the upcoming BBQ Roundup, June 20-23 at the McGrath Amphitheatre, to multiple patriotic concerts by local groups, Five Seasons Ski Team shows on the Cedar River and the Linn County Fair from June 26 to 30 in Central City.


For a fee, the Freedom Festival helps promotes these events in various marketing maneuvers, including the festival website and 130,000 event guides — but all the actual planning is up to each individual event, not the Freedom Festival folks.

While the nonprofit Freedom Festival works closely with the city of Cedar Rapids, it’s not part of the city’s functions.

“We’re separate from the city — we’re our own nonprofit,” Johnson said.

It takes “several hundred thousand dollars” to finance the endeavor, she added, with funding from corporate donors and sponsorships, hotel/motel tax funds from the city and support from the Linn County Supervisors. Another big boost comes from the sale of $5 festival buttons, which not only serve as admission to many events, but also are your ticket to ride the city buses free from June 20 to July 4. Buttons are available at events, at area Casey’s and Hy-Vee stores, the U.S. Cellular Center’s box office and the Freedom Festival office.

All in all, the festival continues to be popular, drawing 500,000 people in total and about 100,000 for the July 4 festival finale.

It’s a huge undertaking, but it has its rewards.

“It has so many hard parts, so many stressful parts, so many busy days, so many long hot days,” said Johnson, who started as an intern, then a board member, and now has been a staff member for about a year and half.

“But honestly, seeing everyone enjoying our events, and families coming together and kids smiling and laughing and enjoying the events — even if one person comes up to you and says, ‘Thank you for putting this on, you made my child’s day’ or ‘This is a great event that I can bring my kids to,’ that makes everything so worth it,” she said.

“I’m so glad we have such community support to be able to put on this festival for the community. I grew up here, and I can’t imagine not having the Freedom Festival.”


• What: Cedar Rapids Freedom Festival

• When: June 20 to July 4




• Tribute to Heroes Dinner: 6 to 9 p.m. June 20, The Hotel at Kirkwood Center, 7725 Kirkwood Blvd. SW; registration is closed

• Movie Night at the Ballpark: “Despicable Me 3”: 7 to 10 p.m. June 21, Veterans Memorial Stadium, 950 Rockford Rd. SW; free with festival button; no chairs allowed on the field, no outside food and beverages

• Patriotic Picnic: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. June 22, Marion Square Park, 1107 Seventh Ave., Marion

• Balloon Glow: 6 to 10 p.m. June 25, Sinclair Levee, 1430 Second St. SE; coolers allowed, music by Alisabeth Von Presley; free with $5 festival button for ages 9 and up; rain date June 27

• DockDogs: noon to 6 p.m. June 27; 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. June 28, 29, 30; front lawn, National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library, 1400 Inspiration Place SW; to participate, go to or

• Parade: 10 a.m. to noon June 29, starts in NewBo District, ends in Czech Village

• Pancake Breakfast: 8 a.m. to noon July 4, Veterans Memorial Building, 50 Second Avenue Bridge, $6 adult, $3 child, $1 discount with festival button; car show on the bridge

• Freedom Festival Concert: The Johnny Holm Band, 5 to 9:45 p.m. July 4, McGrath Amphitheatre, 475 First St. SW, free with festival button; opening act Boot Jack Band; stay and see the fireworks from this location, no coolers allowed


• Fireworks festivities: 4 to 10 p.m. July 4, Second Avenue Bridge; with kids’ activities, food, drink, military vehicles and exhibits, fireworks set to music at dusk; festival button required ages 9 and up for admission at festival entry points; coolers allowed on bridge; no pets, sparklers, firecrackers or fireworks allowed

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