SUN ‘n FUN Opens with New Features, the Blue Angels and an out-of-this-World Economic Impact
New ticketing, new parking areas and expanded Wi-Fi are just three of the things SUN ‘n FUN organizers have done to improve the experience of the internationally known event, which generally is considered the kickoff to the air show “season.”
Online sales are up 40% over the previous year for the 49th annual SUN ‘n FUN Aerospace Expo at Lakeland Linder International Airport (LAL), which runs from March 28 to April 2. It includes everything from:
- Daily air shows featuring warbirds, demo teams, the Blue Angels and more.
- An author’s corner.
- A career fair.
- A forum on the first day where aviation innovators will present what’s coming in 2023.
Assistant Airport Director Adam Lunn said SUN ‘n FUN has said that “pre-sale tickets have reached records levels. We know SUN ‘n FUN has made great efforts to improve mobility around the site with additional tram loops and the addition of the new east main auto parking to accommodate a renewed attendance.”
All indications are that this year “will be a very well-attended show,” said LAL Director Kris Hallstrand.
Gene Conrad, the former director of LAL and now President & CEO of the Aerospace Center for Excellence – as well as vice chair of the Central Florida Development Council’s board of directors — started in his new role the day the 2022 air show ended. He learned a lot just walking around during that show, all of which ended with ideas to use technology to improve visitors’ experience. That led to a new website in December 2022– www.flysnf.org — and a new ticketing system, he said.
The organization is encouraging use of the web site to buy tickets and parking passes, which are $10 cheaper if bought online. “The old way, people could only pay cash. There was an exchange, people would ask questions, it all took time. Now, we’re using technology to generate QR codes for prepaid parking that can just be scanned, and we’ve gone from two to five lines for people entering. That should help everybody enjoy the day.”
Conrad said SUN ‘n FUN helps economic development in Polk County because it attracts so many visitors, exhibitors and vendors here – not to mention volunteers and workers.
“It’s getting these companies here,” he said. “The airports here are known because of SUN ‘n FUN and the aviation atmosphere here. All our hotels are full. People are spending and leaving money behind. There’s a huge influx of visitors right now, especially with spring training going on as well. It helps support all restaurants, grocery stores and the like. The new Publix on County Line Road was the No. 1 place people on the SUN ‘n FUN campus called last year.”
Because it’s the first big airshow of each year, it’s critical to aviation nationwide, Conrad said. “It’s not a weekend airshow. It’s a convention. Over 500 exhibitors and vendors come so aviation buffs can come see them, buy stuff, conduct business, and attend forums and seminars.”
It’s about bringing the aviation industry in, which is important to Polk County, whose four airports generate $1.9 billion in economic impact. “Our aviation industry is growing,” he said. “We need qualified, skilled individuals to work in our industry here. We want skilled individuals to stay. Or, if they find an opportunity throughout the country, we want them to come back to work at Draken Internationa or Amazon Air or wherever.”
Improving the Experience
Lunn said SUN ‘n FUN organizers are introducing a new layout that consolidates various services into a central hub called “The Island.” Visitors can order from Publix via Instacart and have it delivered to The Island, where they can pick it up.
“With so many changes coming to SUN ‘n FUN 2023 we highly recommend checking out its website for more information on all the new amenities coming to the Expo,” Lunn said.
They also upgraded the Wi-Fi to make using it easier for vendors, exhibitors and all guests, Conrad said.
The Military Attraction
Hallstrand said this year will be exciting because of all the military planes that will be on hand, including the C5 Galaxy. “It will be the largest aircraft ever to land at Lakeland Linder. SUN ‘n FUN did that through their recruitment of military aircraft. It attracts people. This gives people an opportunity to see what our military has for equipment and the complexity of these aircraft. The C5 is a multimillion-dollar aircraft that you wouldn’t normally have exposure to if it weren’t for an airshow.”
Hallstrand and Lunn agree that the U.S. Navy Blue Angels will be the highlight of the expo, flying Friday, Saturday and Sunday. “They’re a spectacular show with formation flying and demonstration. You have to look at it in awe. They are a unique group,” Hallstrand said.
One recent project will help with the flow of plane traffic during the event.
“The airport was able to construct an extension of, and reconnect, the main southern parallel taxiway to the main runway,” Lunn said. “This will greatly assist the ease of moving aircraft during peak arrival and departure periods.”
The project was completed with assistance from the Florida Department of Transportation and the Federal Aviation Administration, he said.
“Our bones are good,” Hallstrand said. “That just helps with the event as a whole. We’re very capable with our infrastructure on the ground.”
When asked why Lakeland Linder should continue to host this event, Hallstrand said: “Because we’re cool. It’s part of our identity as an airport. Lakeland is a unique airport in the country. It bodes well for our community to host this type of event. It’s good for the community.”
Lunn agreed, saying SUN ‘n FUN is a part of the airport’s DNA. “We are proud to be their home, and its parent company’s mission is intricately woven into the fabric of what makes LAL one of, if not the, most dynamic airports in the country. Outside of its incredible economic impact, in many cases there is direct correlation between the success of the educational programs funded by the event and the growth of businesses here on the airport.”