By J.R. Williams -- email@example.com
WINCHESTER -- Bring in the queen and shut down the streets: It's the biggest weekend of the year.
In between today's golf tournament and Sunday's bluegrass festival, the 82nd annual Shenandoah Apple Blossom Festival will bring bands, beer, dancing, food, parades, celebrities and new royalty to downtown Winchester. This year's theme is "Celebrate!"
Some aspects of this year's festival have been tweaked by the economy, some by circumstance. The most visible change will be the absence of Friday fireworks over Handley High skies.
Festival officials agreed with the city to cancel the show as construction at the Handley Bowl continues. Fireworks will return next year, and early indicators suggest other events will have just as much bang, event officials said.
Several months ago, event officials announced they were trimming their budgets, and expressed concern that parade participation could be low.
But all the vendor booths and park craft spots are taken, tickets and merchandise are selling and the parades will be the same length this year, Executive Director John Rosenberger said.
"What we thought was going to be a very general downsizing of the festival hasn't occurred," Rosenberger said. "We've been very pleasantly surprised."
Bands in every category are up, he said, with the exception of the Grand Feature Parade, which is down slightly.
"So far, the signs are that everybody's ready to party," he said.
Elaine Aikens, president of the festival, pointed to the second Old Town Wine & Fine Arts Festival, held last Friday and Saturday, as one of those signs. A sizable crowd showed up, and more wineries participated.
"We were very encouraged," she said.
Event officials continue to pull celebrities to the festival's Grand Feature Parade.
Erik Estrada, veteran television and voice actor, will join the festival as this year's grand marshal. He is scheduled to arrive Thursday and attend several events through Saturday.
American Idol runner-up Bo Bice will attend as firefighters' marshal. He will attend several events Thursday and Friday, including the firefighters' reception, the horticultural and bloomers' luncheons, and the coronation of the queen.
The Sports Breakfast will feature sports marshal and NASCAR champ Ward Burton as guest speaker.
Ashley Taylor Landon, 17, will be crowned Queen Shenandoah LXXXII on Friday afternoon. Ashley is the granddaughter of the late actor Michael Landon, and the niece of two former queens. She will visit Winchester from her home in Austin, Texas.
After her coronation, Ashley will appear at several Saturday events, including the grand feature parade.
In keeping with the festival slogan of "go local, go bloom, celebrate," event officials have invited several home-grown celebrities back to their old stomping grounds.
John Handley High School graduates and performers Jon Huertas, Kevin Covert and Norman Shankle will return this year. Conservative commentator Kate Obenshain also will appear at several events.
Miss Virginia 2008 Tara Wheeler also will attend the festival.
The Daily Grind Jazz Fest is off the schedule this year. Fans can get their fix at the N'awlins Jazz Party, scheduled for Saturday at 8 p.m.
"This is more suited to get the crowd on its feet," Rosenberger said.
The party is billed as a Mardi Gras celebration, with participants encouraged to dig out their masks and put on some purple, green and gold. Music will be provided by the Shenandoah University Jazz Ensemble and Baltimore-based "The Junkyard Saints."
The Apple Blossom Carnival began Tuesday behind Ward Plaza on Valley Avenue, and will run through Sunday. Anthony's Pizza Weekend in the Park will offer arts and crafts as usual, with a car show on Sunday afternoon.
All that's left is the weather. Reports for this weekend are conflicting, with some forecasting rain. But Rosenberger said the show will go on.
"Curiosity pushes us to [check the weather], but it doesn't change a thing," he said.
For more information, visit www.thebloom.com or call 662-3863.