WILMINGTON — Diversifying its demographics has become a priority for Azalea Festival director Alison Baringer and the 150 committee chairs that help put on Wilmington’s largest festival each spring.
The five-day event kicks off Wednesday, with more than 20 happenings taking place — many free — thanks to thousands of people that volunteer to make the 76-year-old festival happen.
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Every six years, the Azalea Festival board works on a strategic planning report to outline goals for how the roughly 100,000-plus-attended event should evolve.
“We assess new community partnerships, new niche events to kind of bring in new people to the festival,” Baringer explained.
This year the Mini Golf Party with Pittsburgh Steeler Alex Highsmith has been added. Azalea organizers worked with the Wilmington native previously, as Highsmith was an invited guest during the past two festivals.
Taking place at Jungle Rapids, the golf party includes Highsmith positioned at one of the 18 holes to sign autographs, take photos and do a meet-and-greet with players.
“We were looking at doing a full-on charity golf tournament,” Baringer said. “But we couldn’t fit that into the schedule this year. So we decided to do something on Sunday morning to really bring in more youth.”
It’s not off the table to grow the event into a larger tournament, she added.
Money from this year’s game ($30 per player) will be split between Azalea Fest and the Alex Highsmith Family Foundation. Based in Wilmington, the nonprofit works with underserved youth in health and nutrition, fitness, athletic participation, academic support and family involvement.
“I personally feel like we have a lot of events for young girls,” Baringer said, “but not necessarily geared more toward young boys. Of course, all of our events anyone can go to.”
Azalea Festival hosts a children’s tea two weeks before the main springtime soiree and princess pageants, which fund scholarships for students. New to 2023 was a pre-festival fashion show as well.
The Azalea Festival’s goal is to highlight the region’s artistic and historical imprint in the South, and encourage volunteerism and civic participation as it relates to the local economy.
UNCW did a year-long economic impact study more than a decade ago and found the festival brought in $50 million to the greater Wilmington area. Baringer said the current five-member board is looking into an updated financial impact report to be a part of its next six-year strategic planning report, which they are hashing out now.
Included is another new initiative, international blooms. Each year moving forward, Azalea Festival will recognize a country and interweave its culture and traditions into festival events. Beringer reached out to New Hanover County’s diversity office for ideas on which international region to focus on in the inaugural year. Mexico was chosen, due to 7.7% of New Hanover County’s 229,018 population being Hispanic.
There will be a mariachi band from Raleigh kicking off the parade on Saturday; they will perform in front of the grand stand seats located in front of Thalian Hall along Third Street. The band also will open shows at the multicultural performing arts stage located at 250 N. Water St.
Also part of the parade will be the Mexican consulate and attorney deputy from Raleigh. Cape Fear Latinos will be at the celebrity reception to engage with locals about their outreach.
The 76th annual Azalea Festival will kick off Wednesday with the queen’s coronation at 2 p.m. Unlike previous years, it’s a closed event, though festival goers will have plenty of other opportunities to meet Queen Azalea.
Wilmington native Carli Batson, former Miss North Carolina, will be crowned the 76th queen and make her first appearance at the celebrity reception at Cape Fear Country Club on Thursday, 11:30 p.m., surrounded by her princess court and joined by other Azalea Festival guests.
Batson has a longstanding history with the festival. She served on the princess and queen court, as well as worked on the Azalea Festival youth committee.
“From a little girl watching the parade street side, to participating in an array of festival events, I am embracing this full-circle moment as Queen Azalea,” she said. “I want each little girl to know that whatever socioeconomic background they may come from, they have the ability to reach their dreams and pursue their goals and aspirations fearlessly — even if their families aren’t members of the country club.”
Batson was able to rise through the pageant ranks — including the 2021 crowning of Miss North Carolina — and receive scholarships to pay for her college career at Appalachian State. She moved back to Wilmington, works at American Leadership Academy and continues performing on the local theater scene, as well as giving back to the community.
Batson raised more than $30,000 through her Carolina Cares initiative during her Miss North Carolina reign, funneling funds into arts programming statewide.
“I am most looking forward to this year’s coronation ceremony,” Batson said. “To have such a historic moment at the local Boys and Girls Brigade Club is a moment that these children, that I have had to honor to spend time with for years now, will never forget. I am elated that this event is taking place here, for it emphasizes more than anything, the community efforts of the Azalea Festival and how our brightest future is in the hearts of our smallest minds.”
Last year, the crowning took place in a public ceremony, at a fourth concert hosted by the festival. This year there are only two concerts taking place at Live Oak Bank Pavilion. Country artist Carly Pearce will perform Thursday night and Old Crow Medicine Show on Friday evening.
“If you go back in the history of the festival, we traditionally had only two concerts,” Baringer said.
The festival began doing three shows when it would scale its own outdoor concert venue behind the Wilson Center on CFCC’s campus in the last decade.
“Since it cost a lot of money to build out that venue, instead of just having two nights, we could have three and help take some of that risk away and recoup some of that money,” Baringer said. “But now that we have Live Oak Bank Pavilion, that risk isn’t there anymore.”
Last year, the Azalea Festival began putting more emphasis on local musicians as well by staging a day of free music at Greenfield Lake Amphitheater with Tunes and Blooms. It returns in 2023 at noon Saturday and will continue through 10 p.m. Performers include Doggy Daycare, Delia Stanley, the Navy Brass Band, The Girls, Lunar Tide, Dubtown Cosmonauts and The Bibis Ellison Band.
Food and beverage concessions will be sold throughout the day, and there will be games and local artisan vendor booths.
Downtown, more than 250 vendors will be back on Front Street this year for the three-day street fair, featuring arts and crafts and fair food galore, from giant turkey legs to funnel cakes. Last year’s North Front Street Streetscape construction caused the fair to be moved to the CFCC parking lot — and with it came an outcry from locals.
“We didn’t want to do it either, to be honest,” Baringer said. Yet, the group didn’t have a choice considering construction planned downtown, which ended up being delayed.
After the event last year, Azalea Festival committees launched surveys — for the public, downtown businesses, and vendors — and everyone answered pretty much unanimously they wanted the fair on Front Street.
“It definitely has more ambiance than a parking lot,” Baringer said, “so we’re excited to be back downtown.”
At 250 N. Water St. will be the children’s area, featuring free events and entertainment all weekend. STEM activities, bounce houses, and arts engagement will take place.
“There’s going to be the Navy bringing a big dive suit that kids can try on and some robotics to play around with,” Baringer said.
The military outfit is hosting Navy Week during Azalea Festival as well, with its own lineup of events.
“One of our invited guests is an admiral from the U.S. Navy,” Baringer said, speaking of Daryl Caudle.
He will be joined by Major League Baseball player Trot Nixon, WECT anchor Frances Weller, her twin, Margaret Weller-Stargell of the Willie Stargell Foundation and Coastal Horizons, U.S. Army Korean war vet, Harold Davis, Miss North Carolina Karolyn Martin and the festival official artist, Ana Brown. They all will make appearances at various events throughout the week.
Should the azaleas cooperate, bright or light pink and white flowers will provide a colorful backdrop for festival happenings. Many azaleas took a hit recently due to early blooms impacted by a cold snap.
“I like to say the festival spirit is always alive and well through the community and volunteerism,” Baringer said. “People are going to be in bright colors no matter what. We also work closely with Tango Nursery, who get us blooming azaleas that we at least take to some of our sponsored events and put on floats in the parade.”
The parade takes place Saturday morning, 9 a.m., and by nightfall, fireworks return over the Cape Fear River.
Here is the rundown of all Azalea Festival events to take place this week, listed in alphabetical order:
Airlie Garden Party
Airlie Gardens, 300 Airlie Road
The biggest day-drinking party in Wilmington gets underway at 11 a.m. at Airlie Gardens; upward of 2,500 people show up to enjoy food, drinks and camaraderie, donning their brightest dresses, suits, fascinators and hats. The party is a private event for sponsors and VIP ticket holders only.
After Garden Get Down
Bluewater Grill, 4 Marina St. • Free
When the final sip is enjoyed and the last picture snapped at the 400-year-old Airlie Oak, the party will migrate to Bluewater Grill for an After Garden Get Down, featuring live music, drink specials and more. Queen Azalea will also make a special appearance. It’s open to the public.
Azaleas on Tour Porch Parade
Various locations • Free
See how locals have decorated their porches for the annual springtime festival. The self-guided tour is free, with locations listed here.
Jengo’s Playhouse, 815 Princess St. • Sold Out
One of the first films produced in Wilmington by Dino DeLaurentiis, David Lynch’s cult classic “Blue Velvet” will screen at Cucalorus headquarters Jengo’s Playhouse. Makeup artist Jeff Goodwin will be in attendance and participate in a Q&A after the screening.
The house that Laura Dern lived in onscreen is also featured on the home tour this year (see below).
Wilmington Convention Center, 515 Nutt St. • Free
After a hiatus due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the Azalea Festival boxing competition will take place Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. at the Wilmington Convention Center downtown.
Interested participants must register by April 14 ($20) and boxers are welcome at a national and international level of competition and from the military branches. Boxers ages 8-16 and 17-34 and Master Boxers 35 and up compete in six divisions. The event is a USA Boxing Sanctioned Tournament.
Live Oak Bank Pavilion, 10 Cowan St. • Tickets: $40 and up
A three-time Country Music Association Award winner, four-time Academy of Country Music Award winner, Carly Pearce has received one CMT Music Award and picked up her first Grammy Award this year. She became a member of the Grand Ole Opry in 2021 (fittingly invited by Dolly Parton), after having toured over the last five or so years with country icons Luke Bryan and Blake Shelton.
Pearce has released three albums to date including 2021’s “29: Written in Stone.”
“Cinderella” by Thalian Association
Thalian Hall, 310 Chestnut St. • Tickets: $34
Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Cinderella” brings the classic children’s fairy tale to life.
The musical is based on 1957’s TV appearance with Julie Andrews, recreated in 1965 with Lesley Ann Warren. Another remake took place in 1997 starring Brandy as Cinderella and Whitney Houston as the Fairy Godmother. Thalian Association Community Theater will base its production on the ‘90s teleplay.The musical takes place April 14-16, at 7:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, and 3 p.m. on Sunday.
Read PCD’s previous coverage here.
Elks Lodge, 5102 Oleander Dr. • Free
Coin collectors will find a treasure trove of currency on display for sale and trade this weekend, Saturday, April 15, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday, April 16, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Presented by the Lower Cape Fear Coin Club, free coins will be given to children to learn about currency and foreign countries; there also will be a Kids Korner. More than 30 dealers from multiple states will be on hand to appraise, buy, sell and trade coins, currency, and other numismatic items.
Dollar General Parade
Front Street • Free – $8 bleacher seats
There will be main viewing areas along 3rd Street, from Market to Bladen streets as local businesses, organizations and community groups, along with marching bands, political leaders, the queen and her court and celebrities parade down the route. Also included will be character balloons similar to those seen at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
The parade begins at 9 a.m. Festival bleacher tickets are available for $5 to $8 in advance or $7 to $10 on the day of.
Downtown parking decks will be open. Access to the 2nd Street deck will be open via Princess Street only until 8:45 a.m. and cars cannot leave until the parade is over Saturday.
ADA parking is on the corner of Chestnut and 3rd streets, and is accessible via Chestnut Street until 8:45 a.m.
A shuttle will be operational from Independence Mall near Dillard’s and will drop off parade goers at Fourth Street between Princess and Market. The shuttle will run from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m., with the last one leaving at 1:45 p.m. Tickets are $2 one way or $4 round trips for regular tickets, or $1 one way and $2 roundtrip for “reduced” tickets, available for adults 65 and up or children ages 5 to 17 and UNCW students; kids under 5 ride free.
Downtown Wilmington • Free
The sky will light up Saturday evening as fireworks explode over the Cape Fear River, starting at 9 p.m. on April 15. Traffic will be heavy entering and exiting downtown so be prepared and proceed with caution.
Various locations • Tickets: $50
The Cape Fear Garden Club is hosting its annual Azalea Garden Tour featuring 13 local gardens. It’s self-guided and takes place April 14, 15 and 16 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Gardens are located in Forest Hills and Masonboro Sound Road, Airlie Gardens and Frank H. Kenan Chapel at Landfall. Some stops, numbers nine through 13, are only accessible via shuttle, with drivers required to park at Mayfaire Town Center, between Fuel Fitness Wilmington (formerly O2 Fitness), 980 Town Center Drive, and Fox & Hound Bar + Grill, 920 Town Center Drive, to access a ride to the featured homes.
Find more information here.
Historic Wilmington Foundation Home Tours
Various locations • Tickets: $40
Ever wanted to learn the history behind the walls of local historic buildings? The Historic Wilmington Foundation’s annual home tours during Azalea Festival allow the opportunity.
This year, featured along the self-guided tours are bungalows and Queen Anne homes, showcasing quaint neighborhoods of historical significance and architectural styles that highlight preservation charm. The ribbon-cutting takes place at 12:30 p.m. on Saturday, April 15, at 1416 Central Blvd. There will be live music from Jim Ferris Duo at D. N. Chadwick House and free ice cream from Boombalatti’s at Sunset Park Baptist Church (231 Central Blvd.) for ticket holders, while supplies last.
The tours take place from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. both Saturday and Sunday, but on Thursday, April 13, HWF executive director Travis Gilbert will host a special tour. He will guide people through Sunset Park, a neighborhood on the southside outskirts of downtown at 6:30 p.m. The hour tour will explore its origins and growth near the city’s port; Sunset Park was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2003. Many houses on the Azalea Fest tour are located in Sunset Park.
Juried Art Show and Sale
Hannah Block Historic USO/Community Arts Center, 120 S. Second St. • Free
Taking place at Second and Orange streets, the annual spring art sale from the Wilmington Art Association.
Featured will be more than 200 artists and 330 works — oils, acrylics, pastels, photography and more. Admission is free and sales benefit the artists, with partial proceeds going to WAA. The art can be viewed all week through April 15, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (evening hours TBD), and April 16 until 4 p.m.
Mini Golf Party with Alex Highsmith
Jungle Rapids, 5320 Oleander Dr. • Tickets: $30
A new Azalea Festival event combines putt putt, the NFL and charity.
Ticket buyers are grouped into four and select their time slots to play (10 a.m. to 11 a.m., 11 a.m. to noon, or noon to 1 p.m.) and complete the course. In order for a party of four to play together, all tickets should be registered under one name.
NFL Pittsburgh Steeler and Wilmington hometown celebrity, Alex Highsmith, will be located at one of the 18 holes on the course to sign autographs, take photos and mix and mingle with players.
It’s $30, and a portion of the proceeds will be donated to the Alex Highsmith Foundation, with the rest benefiting Azalea Festival. Players also receive a $5 Jungle Rapids arcade card and swag. Children must be supervised by a parent or guardian at all times.
Old Crow Medicine Show
Live Oak Bank Pavilion, 10 Cowan St. • Tickets: $40 and up
An Americana band that got its start in the mountains of Boone is headlining Friday An Americana band that got its start in the mountains of Boone is headlining Friday night’s show at Live Oak Bank Pavilion. Old Crow Medicine Show is touring in support of its new album, “Paint This Town.” Read PCD’s interview with its founder Ketch Secor here.
Patron’s Party Gala
More info here
A special event for sponsors and partners, The Patrons’ Party Gala features food and drinks for those that help make the annual festival happen. Queens, princesses, special guests and others will dance the night away. The event isn’t open to the public.
Queen’s Dance Party
City Council Chambers, 102 N. 3rd St. • Sold Out
The queen and her court host an annual dance for the public to get to know the royalty and mingle with the court.
Front Street • Free to attend
More than 200 vendors will line up on Front Street up to Market and Second streets for the DGX Street Fair. It’s free to attend and the multicultural performing arts stage will be located at 250 N. Water St. with free shows, from groups like Ameribic Fusion Dance Troupe and Azalea Festival royalty performances from the queen and princesses.
The 2023 performing schedule for both Saturday and Sunday can be found here.
Tunes and Blooms
Greenfield Lake Amphitheater, 1941 Amphitheater Drive • Free
Local music will be the centerpiece of Greenfield Lake performances this weekend. There will be concessions for sale, both food and beverages, plus a local vendor fair. The lineup of live sounds include:
Noon – 1 p.m. — Doggy Daycare
1 p.m. – 1:30 p.m. — Delia Stanley
1:30 p.m. – 2:30 p.m. — Navy Brass Band
2:30 p.m – 3 p.m. — Delia Stanley
3 p.m. – 4 p.m. — The Girls
4 p.m. – 4:30 p.m. — Delia Stanley
4:30 p.m. – 5:30 p.m. — Lunar Tide
5:30 p.m. – 6 p.m. — Delia Stanley
6 p.m. – 7:30 p.m. — Dubtown Cosmonauts
7:30 p.m. – 8 p.m. — Delia Stanley
8 p.m. – 10 p.m. — The Bibis Ellison Band
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