A behind-the-scenes look at the new and improved Azalea Festival parade
By CHRISTINE HENNESSEY
For more than 60 years, Wilmington has been home to the North Carolina Azalea Festival, a five-day event that celebrates the city’s art, culture, and history. For many people the highlight of this event is the Azalea Festival parade.
The parade is one of the largest in Southeastern North Carolina. It takes marching bands, elaborate floats, clowns, horses, a newly crowned Queen, and upwards of 150 participants two full hours to wind through the heart of historic downtown Wilmington. Over 100,000 people attend, most of them sitting on bleachers in front of City Hall and lining the sidewalks, searching for the best view. This year, finding that view will be even easier thanks to changes that are making the parade bigger and better than ever before.
One of the people behind these changes is parade coordinator Meghan Tadlock. As a child, she watched the parade religiously and still recalls the magic of seeing the floats go by while music filled the streets. Inspired by those memories, she served as a parade volunteer for three years. When a parade coordinator position was created, Tadlock was the board’s first choice.
Putting together a parade of this magnitude is no easy task. Tadlock and a committed group of six volunteers spend a full year organizing the event. For most of the volunteers, this work is a labor of love. The good news is that it’s already paying off. Here’s a sneak peek at some of the improvements they’ll be unveiling at this year’s parade.
Moving Pieces, Moving People
The most obvious change is the parade’s route. For the last few decades, the parade started on the North end of Downtown and ended on the South end. This year organizers are restoring the parade’s original course. The fun will begin on Dock and 3rd Street, travel north on 3rd, and end on Bladen.
“Because the new route is a straight shot up 3rd, it’ll be more enjoyable for viewers,” Alison Baringer, Executive Director, explains. “No more twists and turns, and fewer gaps between units. There will be less time for stragglers and more time for entertainment.”
Speaking of entertainment, one of the parade’s biggest goals is to involve more high school marching bands. “Bands,” Tadlock explains, “are a parade must-have and a fan favorite. We’ve been working with schools across North Carolina and in neighboring states to bring more bands to the parade.” In the future, Tadlock hopes to pair local businesses with schools in order to alleviate budget concerns and help them make the trip to Wilmington. Parade organizers are also honoring one of the community’s requests by allowing each of the local high schools to march in the parade separately. This will allow them to better showcase their individual talents and celebrate their school pride.
The parade is a 68-year-old tradition, and much of its success is due to the hard work of volunteers. “We hope to have approximately 35 volunteers this year,” Tadlock says. “The more hands on deck, the better.” To make it easier for people to sign up, organizers are unveiling a brand new registration system. “Volunteers can look up specific roles in the parade and choose what they would like to do,” Tadlock explains. “The link to the system can be found on our website.”
Floats, Balloons, and Monster Trucks
Another long-term goal involves the floats. In order to improve the quality of these classics while getting more non-profits involved, Tadlock has found a new way to help local organizations that want to be a part of the parade but don’t have the financial resources to sponsor their own float. She’s asking business to chip in, and many have agreed. Right now, she’s working with JCPenney and Learning Express to create a much-anticipated Frozen-themed float. She’s also helping the Festival’s Multicultural Committee create an “All Around the World Float,” which will celebrate the diversity of different nations.
Balloons are incredibly popular in events such as the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and the Rose Bowl Parade. Now, thanks to the new route, the Azalea Festival parade has the chance to join those ranks. Third Street is free from power lines, giving the balloons a clear path; the challenge is letting business know that the chance to sponsor a balloon is an option. “They’re a bit more expensive than a float,” Tadlock says, “but they’re a huge advertising opportunity and such a treat for the viewers.”
One local business that has played a huge role in the parade is its official sponsor, Neuwirth Chrysler Dodge Jeep and Ram Trucks. This company provides over 100 vehicles on parade day, including cars for the celebrities who ride in the parade, trucks to pull the floats, and a special appearance by the Raminator, a huge monster truck that mesmerizes children and adults alike.
The Beginning of Better
While the Azalea Festival parade is a fun event full of music, floats, and balloons, its true meaning is much deeper. Participating in the parade fosters an important connection between the individual and the community while instilling a sense of civic pride. “We do this for a lot of reasons,” Baringer says, “but one of the most important is the kids. Seeing the community support the parade, through attendance and sponsorship, is inspiring. You learn so much about yourself during the parade process—leadership skills, organization skills, pride in a job well done. It’s a great experience for everyone.”
Historically the Azalea Festival parade has been a community parade, but with these changes, it’s beginning to evolve into a performance parade. “It’s a balance,” Baringer explains. “We want to become a show parade without losing the community spirit that’s been so important to us from the beginning.”
As for Tadlock, when she watched the parade as a child, mesmerized by the floats that drove down 3rd Street, she never thought she’d end up working as the parade coordinator. Now that she and Baringer are bringing that magic to others, they can’t imagine doing anything else.
The 2015 Azalea Festival parade will take place on April 11th. Interested in volunteering? Contact the Parade Committee at 910-794-3103 or firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information, visit http://www.ncazaleafestival.org/events/parade