San Antonio natives Melissa Guel and Tony Rosas stood in line Tuesday among the earliest arrivals, ready to enter La Villita for A Night in Old San Antonio (NIOSA). For them and many others, a night of fun in their city was past due.

“We’ve been locked up too long,” Rosas said, referring to stay-at-home measures many have taken during the pandemic.

One of Fiesta’s most popular events, NIOSA returned Tuesday for the first night of a four-night run. The 2021 iteration of the event comes with a few pandemic modifications: Revelers must purchase single-night $20 individual tickets in advance online, as none are sold on festival grounds. Normally, attendees could purchase passes for multiple nights of the festival, but this year capacity was limited to 65% of past attendance, so separate tickets must be purchased for each night.

A man takes a bite out of his chicken on a stick during A Night in Old San Antonio on Tuesday. Credit: Nick Wagner / San Antonio Report

The slight changes to NIOSA did not deter Guel and Rosas. It was their first night out at Fiesta this year, and now that they have been vaccinated against COVID-19, they were eager to reunite with family members and friends they haven’t seen in over a year. They had a spot where they expected to meet friends Tuesday night.

“At NIOSA, you’re just having fun all night,” Guel said. “You know you’re going to see someone you know.”

Andrea Stilley moved to San Antonio in 1982 and has been going to Fiesta and NIOSA every year since. In college, she would go with friends and stay until the grounds were closed. When she worked at USAA, Stilley would attend NIOSA with coworkers, but since retiring, the tradition has taken on new meaning, especially after enduring a year in a pandemic. She looked forward to eating steak on a stick, gorditas, and beignets.

“It’s changed over the years, but it hasn’t,” Stilley said of NIOSA. “Once you come, it becomes a tradition.”

Over at Froggy Bottom, area chairman Gerald Wright couldn’t really tell if the crowd was smaller this year, and he’s been chairman since 2005. Lines for chicken on a stick at Mr. Chicken snaked past the dance floor, blocking the beer booths. He said he hoped they did not run out of chicken after ordering less this year in anticipation of smaller crowds each night.

At the Mr. Chicken stand, things looked a little different this year. NIOSA implemented the BlastPass, an electronic wristband that can be filled with cash in amounts of $25, $50, or $100. Instead of selling paper tickets for food, drink, and other goodies as in past years, vendors will scan the BlastPass for all transactions, including chicken on a stick. Additionally, the NIOSA favorite is served on a plate instead of just handed to the customer.

One of the volunteers, Joe Moncada, said the wristbands, limited capacity, and other changes to NIOSA demonstrate that San Antonians can have “safe fun with a purpose.”

“It really shows how resilient San Antonio is,” Moncada said. “We can adapt to anything. San Antonio’s ready to come back.”

Fernando Gomez dances with his girlfriend, Kloe Dominguez, during A Night in Old San Antonio on Tuesday. Credit: Nick Wagner / San Antonio Report

That was evident from the crowded dance areas, where people swayed to music with beers in their hands, and from the line outside La Villita that still trailed out onto South Alamo Street after 8 p.m.

Chinatown area chairwoman Julie Hamilton had more work for her and her volunteers this year because fewer workers showed up to help set up. She said she thought some people did not want to work NIOSA this year because of COVID-19 and the heat, which was another change this year.

“I will never complain about it being hot in April again,” Hamilton said. “If people think it’s hot, they can just drink more beer or water.”

But Hamilton, who has been volunteering for 24 years, said all the work and heat was worth it to see NIOSA return after a more-than-two-year absence.

Brooke Crum

Brooke Crum is the San Antonio Report's education reporter.