It began nearly two decades ago as a modest poker run that started in Sarasota and ended in Lakewood Ranch. It grew into one of the most popular festivals in downtown Sarasota, drawing tens of thousands of people each year and raising more than $1.5 million for local children’s charities.
But as Thunder by the Bay attracted more and more people, so did downtown Sarasota. So this year, it has movied to a new home at the Premier Sports Campus in Lakewood Ranch. Coincidentally, that was the destination of that first-year poker run.
“Nineteen years later and here we are back in Lakewood Ranch,” said Lucy Nicandri, the festival director and the executive director of Suncoast Charities for Children.
Construction in the downtown area, including a lot of new residential developments, plus new restrictions that the city put on downtown festivals, prompted the move, Nicandri said.
“Ultimately it was about the changing face of downtown Sarasota,” she said. “It just became too challenging for us to have the festival downtown.”
But the move is a good thing, she said, allowing Thunder by the Bay to grow. Just for example, this year’s festival will have twice as many vendors as last year’s.
“Last year we had to turn away vendors,” she said. “There just wasn’t room. And that cost us money.”
It started as a motorcycle festival, and still a lot of the attendees, and a lot of the events, are geared toward the motorcycle community. But it’s very much a family-friendly festival as well with lots of free live music.
Live bands have been part of Thunder by the Bay since its early years, and as the festival has grown, the music lineup has gotten stronger. In the past few years, the lineup has included nationally known acts, including the Marshall Tucker Band and Great White.
Partly because the festival will be larger than ever before this year, the music lineup is better than ever, featuring Blue Oyster Cult, by far the biggest-name band that Thunder by the Bay has ever hosted. They play at 4 p.m. Sunday.
“If you go see them in concert, the tickets will be $100,” Nicandri said. “We have them for free.”
Blue Oyster Cult has been around for more than 40 years, and the band is best known for its ’70s and early ’80s hits “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper,” “I’m Burning” and “Godzilla.” But unlike most bands still around from that era, Blue Oyster Cult still includes both of its most visible members, lead singer and guitarist Eric Bloom and lead guitarist Buck Dharma, who wrote and sang many of the band’s best-known songs, including “Reaper.”
Saturday’s music acts include local favorites Twinkle & Rock Soul Radio, plus a lot of tribute bands — Diary of an Ozzman, Keep the Faith, KISS America and Def Leggend.
The roomier venue has also allowed organizers to add several other shows and activities, including stunt riders and a show by the Ives Brothers, who perform at major motorcycle festivals around the country with their Wall of Death and Globe of Death.
The festival gets going Thursday with some more contained events, including a sporting clay tournament, but the event that will draw the biggest crowds is the Rockin’ & Riding Festival, which is 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Saturday and 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Sunday.
Another new feature is a tent where adults can sample up to five craft beers, wine varieties or spirits for $10.
Thunder by the Bay is one of two major annual fundraisers for Suncoast Charities for Children, which provides funds for facilities and programs for five area children’s non-profits. Nicandri said the festival usually brings in about $150,000 a year, mostly from sponsorships and vendor fees.
“That’s a lot of money, considering that’s it’s a free event for people to get into,” Nicandri said.