Effortless family fun in central South Carolina
By Katie Jackson
"10 cents?" asked my eleven-year-old in utter disbelief. It's always hard explaining to our kids how much things used to cost back in the "good old days," but for some reason, they had an especially difficult time digesting the fact that a movie ticket in 1936 was only a dime.
A movie theater during the Great Depression, the Sumter Opera House was the reason we went to central South Carolina. Built in the late 1800's, the building was renovated in 1936 to serve as a movie theater. It was lovingly restored again in the 1980's back to its original purpose as a venue for performing arts. For years we'd heard that one of South Carolina's best-kept secrets is this historic building, which still functions as a venue for the performing arts. So last summer when my husband and I were looking for a convenient weekend getaway that could deliver in the quality entertainment department as well as in the kid-friendly destination department, we landed on Sumter.
The skinny on Sumter
When we first told our kids, ages 7, 11 and 14, that we would be taking a trip to a town known for its Opera House, they became curious. "What's an opera house?" "Do people live there?" and "Do we dress up for it?" were just a few of the questions we fielded.
Of course, our iPhone-wielding eldest daughter did some digging, but she got sidetracked from her Opera House research as soon as she discovered Sumter was also home to Swan Lake Iris Gardens—the only public park in the U.S. that is home to eight different swan species. For her 14th birthday she got a new camera, and she was eager to capture unique flora and fauna for her portfolio. She read about the park's exotic flower species and its butterfly garden, but she was most excited about its one-of-a-kind Chocolate Garden. It took her ten minutes to explain to her younger brother that while the plants would be edible, the "Banana Split" wouldn't taste like his favorite dessert, but that the plants looked or smelled like different varieties of chocolate. We were pleasantly surprised to see so much enthusiasm from our often-indifferent teenager.
Music and food
We rolled into Sumter on a Friday evening, and the weather could not have been better–T-shirt temperatures with a cool, refreshing breeze. We timed our arrival so we could catch an outdoor concert—courtesy of Sumter's Fourth Fridays on Main summer series. Some friendly locals let us borrow their spare lawn chairs, and to return the favor, we bought them a round of drinks. With mouths full of some of South Carolina's finest BBQ, the kids were enthralled watching the band's lead guitarist play up a storm on his Gibson.
"What's for breakfast?" our son asked the next morning. An hour later we were forks deep into buttery shrimp and grits and passing around a plate of beignets—powdered sugar-covered squares of fried dough. After the last crumb was claimed, we set out to explore Sumter and burn off some energy. As we walked past Palmetto Park and the University of South Carolina Sumter, my husband grabbed my hand. The kids cringed, but by the time we reached Swan Lake Iris Gardens, they were more concerned with counting water fowl than anything else.
Beautiful doesn't even begin to describe Swan Lake. In no time at all, our daughter was putting in her second memory card. It's ironic to think that this 120-acre park started out as a swamp. But now, as we took in the vibrant sights, sounds and scents, we found the now pristine lake to be peaceful, lovely and charming. Our lazy Saturday morning in the park was perfect, but it didn't end until we promised the kids we would return for an event or two.
We'd heard about the annual Memorial Day Weekend Iris Festival—the state's oldest continuous festival and widely considered one of the top events in the Southeast. Meanwhile, our seven-year-old was keen on coming back in December when he could see his favorite cartoon characters and a floating Christmas tree during the park's month-long Fantasy of Lights.
"Speaking of floating things," said my husband, "I heard a rumor that Sumter is THE place to get ice cream floats." That rumor turned out to be very true. After doing some souvenir shopping downtown, we indulged at the hometown drug store's popular soda fountain. Our day could have ended perfectly right then and there—over a frosted glass of root beer and vanilla ice cream, but it didn't. No, we still had a concert to catch at the reason we came to Sumter in the first place, the Opera House.
An historic perspective
"This is the coolest opera house ever," remarked our son as he craned his neck to look up at the structure's 100-ft. tall clock tower. My husband, an accountant who hopes he'll be an architect in his next life, admired the original stone façade. The interior of the building was just as impressive, and you could tell that the musicians on stage felt honored to play there. As the last notes of the final song played out, I surveyed my family's reactions: 4 for 4. Or, if you counted the smile on my face too, 5 for 5.
The real tell-tale sign that this weekend getaway in Sumter was a success was the fact that the next morning, despite subconsciously knowing we had to return home, we all woke up wearing the same looks of contentment. Sumter may no longer be home to 10-cent entertainment, but a visit to this special town is worth every dime!
Easily entertain your family in Sumter, South Carolina!