Ocean City kicks off its vacation season

It's officially time to go downy ocean again.

At least it is as far as officials of the Ocean City Department of Recreation and Parks are concerned. They're the people organizing this weekend's 20th annual Springfest, four days (it opened Thursday) of food, frolic and non-stop entertainment that pretty-much kicks-off the resort's summer season. And they're hoping this weekend will act as something of a starting gun.

"Absolutely," says John "Sully" Sullivan, the department's special events director. "We get everybody out of the house, especially when they've been stuck there with all that snow and ice, and we bring them down to the ocean and throw them a party."

With clear skies and temperatures in the 70s forecast for most of the weekend, organizers are hoping to do even better than last year, when some 125,000 made their way to the inlet parking lot, at the Boardwalk's southern terminus. A total of 186 arts and crafts vendors will be taking part, manning stands and offering their wares for sale. In addition, about 40 food vendors will be on hand (that's in addition to the scores of food sellers just a stone's throw away, on the Boardwalk), as well as some 50 commercial vendors offering souvenirs, beach accessories and other merchandise.

"There's going to be great food, people can buy beer, have a good party," promises Sullivan, who extols the virtues of Springfest with the enthusiasm of an old-time carnival barker. "There's entertainment all day long — everybody leaves here with a smile."

Although most of Springfest is free, admission is charged for the larger musical acts, scheduled for Friday and Saturday night at the Entertainment Pavilion. Friday night at 8, the Country Rat Pack performs, featuring Mark Chesnutt, Tracy Lawrence and Richie McDonald. Saturday night, also at 8, it's '60s teen idols Peter Noone (Herman's Hermits), Micky Dolenz (The Monkees) and Mark Lindsay ( Paul Revere & The Raiders). That line-up may sound a little long in the tooth, but Sullivan believes a good time will be had by everybody in the audience, even those who don't look back fondly on such songs as "Mrs. Brown You've Got a Lovely Daughter," "I'm a Believer" and "Indian Reservation."

"The parents grew up with them, but their children also grew up with them," explains Sullivan. "The Monkees, Paul Revere…I think everybody is into them."

Other musical acts, performing almost continually at the pavilion and on the outdoor stage, include J.R. Booker (4 p.m. Friday, pavilion), Queen City Funk & Soul (noon Saturday, pavilion; 10 a.m. Sunday, outdoor pavilion), Pete Gumbo and the Who Dat Band (1 p.m. Friday, outdoor stage), Jesse Garron's Tribute to Elvis (2 p.m. Saturday, pavilion), Rick K. & the Allnighters (10 a.m. Friday and Saturday, pavilion, and 3 p.m. Friday, outdoor stage) and Randy Lee Ashcroft & The Saltwater Cowboys (11 a.m. Friday, outdoor stage, 1:30 p.m. Sunday, pavilion).

"We try to play to our audience," says Sullivan, noting the variety of musical acts that have been booked for this year's Springfest. "We have country fans, we have oldies fans, we have top 40 fans. We try to make it so that we appeal to everybody."

Springfest got its start back in 1991, after City Councilman James S. Hall looked at Sunfest, Ocean City's 35-year-old end-of-season tradition (set this year for Sept. 23-26), and wondered why there wasn't a similar bash to get the season started. "We've got this wonderful festival called Sunfest in the fall," Sullivan recalls Hall as saying, "why don't we do one in the spring?"

Thus was a tradition born. But as much as visitors may enjoy the music, it's the more traditional Ocean City attractions that really take center stage at Springfest. The beach, as always, is free. So is the sun, the Boardwalk and the laid-back party atmosphere.

"People come here because they want to get away from being in the house, they want to get away from what normally happens," Sullivan says. "This weekend we're offering all that, plus live entertainment."

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