Hours before the opening ceremonies of the Towsontown Spring Festival each year, Michael DiCarlo can be found prepping his beef.
The owner of Big Al's Pit Beef has been serving his fare — ultra thin slices of grilled meat on a Kaiser roll — at the annual festival since the mid-1990s.
"It's always been a good festival," DiCarlo, of Harford County, said of the event, which this year marks its 50th anniversary. "There's great music, a lot of nice crafters and the people that run it are off the charts.
Though DiCarlo's inherited cooking style hasn't changed, much has changed in the 50 years during which festival has taken over the center of downtown Towson for two days each spring.
From having just a few vendors present at its 1967 inaugural — when its name was the Towsontown Art Exhibit — the event, which spans eight blocks, now boasts more than 450 vendors, three stages and 30 entertainment acts.
It also attracts more than 250,000 visitors annually, said Nancy Hafford, executive director of the Towson Chamber of Commerce, which has produced the festival for more than 45 years.
"It just kept growing over time, like a snowball," Hafford said.
This year's festivities kick off at the corner of Washington and Pennsylvania avenues on Saturday, May 6, at noon with bag pipers, a color guard performance and the national anthem. The festival will be open May 6 from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. and May 7 from 1 to 6 p.m.
A smaller preview of the festival runs for a few hours on the Thursday before the main event. Towson Gardens Day will be held Thursday, May 4 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. near the Historic Courthouse downtown.
Live music and food are a big part of Gardens Day, but visitors can also get more information about gardening and plants. This year marks the 31st annual Gardens Day.
On festival day, the fair will feature Zumba classes, carnival rides and a 25-foot Ferris wheel, Hafford said.
The entertainment will include U2 cover band 2U and the Amish garb-clad rock band, the Amish Outlaws.
"This being our 50th year we've brought in popular bands from the mid-Atlantic which we're very excited about," Hafford said.
An interactive exhibit from the Maryland Agriculture Group will feature a variety of activities for children, including a mock cow to pet or milk, and a model horse to teach children how to brush a horse's hair.
Two family fun zones also will offer activities for children, while, on Fashion Truck Alley, visitors can shop for new, local fashions and accessories.
"I participate in a lot of festivals but this is one of the best ones as far as having nonprofits, non-crafts and a good mix of business," Weigel said. "It's not as homey as it used to be but it's very professional, but I think that's a good thing."
In addition to the festival, visitors can enjoy traffic-free access to restaurants within the festival grounds.
"Sometimes, when the festival is over people want to go into a restaurant and take a break," Hafford said. "There's about 15 really great restaurants right in the heart of the festival that people can go in and enjoy."
Towson Hot Bagels CEO Tony Scutto said he sees a lot of traffic on festival day.
"We see new faces," Scutto said. "That doesn't mean we have an increase in the sales — there are a lot of food vendors outside — but after all we think it's a good thing for us. Especially when it's a beautiful day we see a lot of people walking by."
Last year, Scutto said a longtime customer who had moved away made sure to stop by the Allegheny Avenue store while attending the festival.
"There's all the food outside but it's nice when people come and maybe [they will] come later. I don't really have a way to track that, but I live in Towson as well, and work here, so I think it's very cool to have these types of events."
Admission to the festival is free, while carnival rides range in price from $1 to $5. Garage parking is available off Susquehanna Avenue, Allegheny Avenue, Towson Commons and in the Baltimore County Public Library Garage on Chesapeake Avenue.
For more information on the fair go to towsontownfestival.com.
Towsontown Spring Festival schedule
Opening ceremonies are Saturday, May 6, at noon, at the corner of Washington and Pennsylvania avenues.