The COVID-19 pandemic has canceled many events, but St. Peter Catholic Church’s 69th annual Oktoberfest is still happening, just a little differently: by going virtual.
The Virtual Oktoberfest will have many of the event’s signature trappings: bingo, a sweepstakes, a silent auction and an art contest. All the events will be online, rather than in person.
Bringing the event that began in the 1950s into the digital age is volunteer and web designer Richard Peterson. Peterson has volunteered with Oktoberfest for nearly 10 years and, in recent years, helped operate the beer booth.
Peterson said adapting Oktoberfest’s events for a digital platform was an interesting challenge.
“It is a brand-new method. Like anything else, you look out there and see what others have done,” he said.
Events will certainly be different. The silent auctions will look more like eBay auctions, and bingo will be played live via Zoom and Facebook Live. There will be first-person video of roller coasters and carnival rides on the site to make up for a lack of in-person thrills on the midway.
The organizers said they are happy to offer something for the community.
“I try to think outside the box,” said Ed Eberl, a longtime volunteer and self-described “idea guy,” who first devised the plan to move Oktoberfest online. His idea to include the virtual carnival rides and to play bingo via Zoom are definitely outside the box, but the organizers hope to keep the event as close to its legacy as possible.
Eberl said while visitors won’t be able to walk from booth to booth eating food and enjoying the festivities, they can go to the “Food” page on the Virtual Oktoberfest website and order directly from sponsored vendors for delivery to their homes or for pickup. Participating restaurants include Brian’s BBQ, Hunter’s Restaurant, DoBro’s Chicago Style Pizza, and more.
Peterson said he will miss the camaraderie and fun of the beer booth — it’s pretty difficult to do beer digitally — but he is glad St. Peter can keep money coming in to support good works.
“We came to the conclusion that we didn’t want to see a year go by where we didn’t see funds come in,” Peterson said. “We know we won’t get where we were in the past, but we can get something.”
The money raised by the annual Oktoberfest is used to help fund St. Peter Catholic School. Last year, the festival raised more than $100,000, and while the school isn’t expecting as much this year, Principal Charlotte Funston said it’s important to keep the tradition going.
“We tried to add our creativity and ingenuity and put together an event that would be fun for people and offer us a way to keep funding the school,” she said. “We want to gather the community virtually when we can’t gather in person.”
The Virtual Oktoberfest can be found at virtualoktoberfest.org. The website’s features will be fully functional starting at 7 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 27, and will remain live until 7 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 25.
Oktoberfest fast facts
- According to longtime volunteer and former event chairman Peter Woods, the St. Peter Oktoberfest began in 1951 as the St. Peter Fall Festival. The first Fall Festival was held in a dirt lot behind the church, underneath a tent borrowed from the Cole Bros. Circus.
- Woods noted it’s one of DeLand’s oldest events.
- “While other events, such as the Volusia County Fair, preceded the Oktoberfest, many had years of non-operation due to wars and economic circumstances, making both the St. Peter’s Oktoberfest and Little League Baseball the oldest, continuously operated events,” he said.
- Oktoberfest began as a food festival with small games for children. Carnival rides were added in 1974. For a number of years, Woods said, St. Peter experimented with two festivals per year, eventually settling, in the 1980s, on one annual fall festival.
- Also beginning in the 1980s was the Special Kids Festival, a joint venture between St. Peter and the DeLand chapter of the Knights of Columbus, a fraternal Christian organization. This festival brings children with special needs from throughout West Volusia to Oktoberfest to enjoy carnival rides and food, typically on the day before the festival opens to the public.
- For some community members, Oktoberfest is all they know of St. Peter Catholic Church. “At one point I mentioned to a pastor that most of DeLand knows St. Peter more for the Oktoberfest,” Woods said with a laugh. “Next year will be 70 years, and I think that’s great.”