WILMINGTON — After two years of virtual parties, limited gatherings and COVID restrictions, one of North Carolina’s biggest parties is back in Wilmington. The North Carolina Azalea Festival kicks off this week and will include its signature Airlie Garden Party along with concerts and the other in-person events that have packed the early April calendar in the Port City for 75 years.
Since 1948, the Azalea Festival has attracted visitors to Wilmington to celebrate coastal living, outdoor activities and the arrival of springtime on the Carolina coast. After the pandemic caused the 2020 festival to be completely cancelled, the 2021 iteration was scaled down and spread out. The group made significant adjustments to the traditional events and schedule and then-president Deirdre McGlone-Webb announced a 2021 event that would be “in smaller, more intimate and socially distanced venues.”
This year, much of the pomp and circumstance is back. The annual Airlie Garden Party will bring bright colors and big hats back to its traditional Friday morning spot on the schedule. The garden party was held in July last year. Full-scale concerts are also back with country music star Brantley Gilbert, rock icons REO Speedwagon and Grammy-winning rap group Cypress Hill headlining the shows.
North Carolina native and former Miss America, Nia Franklin was announced as Queen Azalea for the 75th anniversary of the event. She will receive the famous crown at a coronation event on Wednesday. Franklin will join a list of queens that dates back to the first year of the festival in 1948 and includes actresses Esther Williams and Phylicia Rashad, talk show host Kelly Ripa, and former Miss Americas Heather French Henry, Mallory Hagan and Kira Kazantsev.
Franklin, who graduated from East Carolina University with a degree in music, will be joined by another ECU Pirate, 2020 Queen Azalea Anne Hawthorne. A Wilmington native, Hawthorne was named queen of the festival prior to its cancellation in 2020. She is a former Radio City Rockette and Broadway alum. Other celebrity attendees to this year’s festival include Master Seargent and ex-prisoner of war William F. Borer, U.S. Olympic Silver Medalist swimmer Claira Curzan, Miss North Carolina Carli Batson, National Cherry Festival Queen Allie Graziano and NFL player Alex Highsmith of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
While the festival is getting back to pre-pandemic levels in many ways, there are changes to this year’s festival compared to years past. The street fair, long a hallmark of the event, will be staged in the Schwartz Center Parking Lot on the campus of Cape Fear Community College this year. The change was precipitated by downtown Wilmington street construction.
Also returning after a two-year hiatus is the festival parade which will feature Franklin and Batson as well as the Queen’s Court, celebrity guests and floats from various businesses and organizations.
Beyond the parties, parades and concerts, the Azalea Festival offers a diverse slate of events, tours and exhibitions throughout the week. The Cape Fear Garden Club is relaunching its garden tour which will include twelve gardens in the Wilmington area. This year’s tour theme is “Where Flowers Bloom, So Does Hope.” The Thalian Association is producing the musical “Little Shop of Horrors” at the official State Community Theater of North Carolina, Thalian Hall.
The festival will also host its annual boxing tournament which is sponsored by the U.S. Army. The event showcases boxers from national and international levels and from the military and is sanctioned by USA Boxing. Boxers from age eight to over 35 will compete with weight limits from 55 pounds to over 200 pounds.
While the Azalea Festival is back to its customary five-day schedule, there will be a special event on May 7 when the Wilmington Symphony Orchestra will premiere the “Azalea Suite” with composer Stene Errante at the Wilson Center at Cape Fear Community College.
The N.C. Azalea Festival is celebrating its 75th Anniversary.
The Airlie Garden Party is the premier event and the Wrightsville Beach garden will host around 2,500 attendees.
According to a study by UNCW, the N.C. Azalea Festival has a $50 million impact on the regional economy.
The festival averages 300,000 attendees throughout the five-day event.