The truth is out there: exploring Roswell’s UFO Festival

Roswell UFO Festival - Courtesy Brian Fanelli
Roswell UFO Festival - Courtesy Brian Fanelli /

New Mexico feels mystical, hence its nickname “Land of Enchantment.” Maybe it’s from its rich Native American history. Maybe it’s due to its endless miles of desert that can trick the eyes at night. It’s also home to one of the most famous UFO cases of all time, the 1947 crash at Roswell. The weekend-long Roswell UFO Festival, held annually near the anniversary of the incident, keeps the myth alive with alien-themed everything and countless panels dedicated to the subject.

During our trip to the Southwest this summer, my wife and I visited Roswell, a source of fascination for us both, a name synonymous with big government cover-ups. The town really leans into its weird and unusual history with ET-themed gift shops lining its Main Street.

For truth seekers and non-believers alike, the Roswell UFO Festival is worth attending. Here are some personal highlights.

Roswell’s Embrace of All Things ET

As mentioned, Roswell isn’t afraid to celebrate the idea that it may have been visited by little green men, or little grey men, according to some of the eyewitness reports. Everything in Roswell’s downtown, and I mean everything, is ET-centric, from its restaurants to its coffee shops. There are alien streetlights, a UFO-shaped McDonald’s, and dozens of gift shops featuring shirts with sayings like, “Roswell: Weird & Wonderful,” and a picture of a flying saucer and/or alien.

Roswell UFO Festival
Roswell UFO Festival – Courtesy Brian Fanelli /

The heart of the downtown features the International UFO Museum and Research Center, which hosts several of the Roswell UFO Festival speakers and events. Though its only one floor, the museum is fairly impressive and includes just a small admission fee. Much of it contains information about the Roswell incident. I especially enjoyed hearing an original radio broadcast from a local ABC affiliate station, breaking the news about a crash in the desert.  Other exhibits underscore military involvement and eyewitness testimony, released years later. For even a skeptic like me, the museum did give me pause, causing me to wonder what exactly happened in the summer of 1947.

Beyond Roswell, the museum examines UFO mythology in pop culture, with markers about The X-files, Independence Day, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Just before exiting the museum, feet from the gift shop, there are exhibits about famous alien abduction cases, including Travis Walton and Betty and Barney Hill.

I noticed that kids had a good time, too, running through the exhibits, laughing and smiling at the countless alien props, including a large UFO in the center of the museum with flashing lights, steam, and several gray beings.

Roswell UFO Festival
Roswell UFO Festival – Courtesy Brian Fanelli /

Highlights of the Roswell UFO Festival

To hear our various Uber drivers tell it, the dusty town just about doubles its population of 48,000 during the Roswell UFO Festival. I believe it. By Friday, streets swelled with vendors and attendees. Some of the events included an alien chase/5K, costume contents, and a parade, featuring ET floats and jeeps decked out like flying saucers.

The fest also includes several panels on all things extraterrestrial. Ufologists speak at both the Convention Center and the UFO Museum. I must confess that I had no idea what I was getting into when my wife pulled me to some of the panels/speakers. I thought, will this be like an episode of Ancient Aliens? Will the guy with crazy hair who blames everything on aliens be in attendance?

The panels weren’t like anything I expected. Some highlights included an examination of Native American art, especially that of the Hopi Tribe, that featured what looked like alien beings and/or flying saucers. Another panel assessed the legacy of Roswell and why it still has such a hold on the American imagination. This particular panel included Donald R. Schmitt, former co-director of the J. Allen Hynek Center for UFO Studies in Chicago and author of several books on Roswell, including UFO Crash at Roswell, The Truth about the UFO Crash at Roswell, and Witness to Roswell: Unmasking the 60-Year Cover-Up.

The panel did entertain some wild speculation and theories. Why would aliens crash in Roswell in the first place? What type of energy could propel a UFO? That said, the panelists didn’t come across as the least bit conspiratorial and generally stuck to the facts of the case, including eyewitness accounts and overlap.

Roswell UFO Festival
Roswell UFO Festival – Courtesy Brian Fanelli /

However, the festival highlight for me was seeing Travis Walton live and in person. Growing up, I watched countless documentaries about his alleged abduction in 1975 in the Arizona woods. For those unfamiliar with the case, Travis worked on a logging team. Coming home from the job, the crew spotted what looked like a fire in the woods. Travis, to the dismay of the other men, stepped out of the truck. Freaked, the crew drove away, only to return and find out that Travis had gone MIA. He disappeared for several days, only to turn up disoriented later. He contacted his family from a phone booth.

The film based on his story, Fire in the Sky, terrified me as a kid, specifically the abduction scenes. In simple and disarming terms, Travis spoke about his experience, as well as the movie adaptation. I can’t say what happened to him, but to hear his story and to witness the pain in his face, made me a little more of a believer. He comes across as quite sincere.

The Roswell UFO Festival Balances the Silly with the Serious

Roswell’s UFO Festival does a fine job balancing the silly with the serious. You’ll see plenty of folks walking down Main Street with alien bobble headbands and gift shop T-shirts with sayings like, “I got probed in Roswell.” The costume contests feature plenty of out of this world cosplay. However, some of the 2023 panels were grounded in science and explored the possibility of other lifeforms from a scientific standpoint. A few of this year’s speakers included former and current NASA engineers. It’s not all just little green men and women running amok on Main Street.

Roswell UFO Festival
Roswell UFO Festival – Courtesy Brian Fanelli /

New Mexico lives up to its “The Land of Enchantment” moniker. It’s a beautiful state with both mountains and endless miles of desert that hug its highways, highways that are especially eerie to drive upon at night, when it feels like a vast expanse of inky darkness until the next small town finally comes into view. Whatever happened in Roswell in 1947 still draws debate. Was it really a weather balloon? Was it an actual UFO? Was it something else, like a secret military craft? Maybe we’ll never know, but should you ever find yourself in southern New Mexico during the summer, don’t be afraid to check out the Roswell UFO Festival. Even non-believers will find something to enjoy at this otherworldly event.  I know I sure did.

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