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Winterfest, the city’s annual toast to wintertime revelry, returns for its fourth year Saturday with a shift toward family-oriented activities.
Think fewer cover bands and beer vendors – and more bounce house, carousel and Ferris wheel rides.
“We realized we couldn’t be all things to all people,” said David Diaz, CEO of the Downtown Raleigh Alliance. “This is going to set up the event for success in the long term.”
Want to go?
Winterfest kicks off Saturday with food, arts, crafts and music. The festival runs from 3 to 9 p.m., with the ice rink open from 2 to 11 p.m.
Mayor Nancy McFarlane will lead a tree-lighting ceremony at 7 p.m. followed by a bluegrass concert.
An outdoor movie screen will show “The Polar Express” at 5:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.
The ice rink will be open through Jan. 31. Admission to the rink is $8, which includes skate rental.
For more information, visit RaleighWinterFest.com.
Diaz says the move toward a kid-friendly atmosphere did not come in response to any complaints or problems. He calls the focus a better match for the festival’s target audience: families visiting downtown for a few hours of skating, sledding, carriage rides and amusements.
There’s also a cost factor. The festival is cheaper to produce without a name musical act. Last year, The Breakfast Club, a 1980s tribute band, played on opening night.
After hovering around $100,000 in previous years, the budget for the two-month Winterfest will be closer to $70,000 this year, a figure that includes the cost of a 35-foot Christmas tree and lights on Fayetteville Street, Diaz said.
The festival started near the beginning of the recession to boost downtown restaurants and other businesses in the winter months.
In some ways, the results are mixed, said Lucia Mongo, whose family owns La Volta Italian restaurant on Fayetteville Street. La Volta sets up a booth to sell hot chocolate, pizza and snacks.
Winterfest brings many newcomers to downtown, Mongo said, but it also keeps away regular customers wary of crowds.
“They’re going to say, ‘Oh it’s thousands of people, we can’t park the car,’ ” Mongo said. “(But) we’re part of the team. We have to go with the flow and pray we make some money.”
The event does not cost taxpayer money. Corporate sponsors, led by AT&T, pay to promote the event, purchase the tree and hire the entertainment. Polar Ice House operates the rink and keeps proceeds from ticket sales.
New to the festival this year is a 42-foot outdoor movie screen that will show the animated film “The Polar Express” for free twice on Saturday. The Downtown Raleigh Alliance plans to launch an outdoor film series in the spring geared toward young people, Diaz said.
In addition to an earlier start time of 3 p.m., organizers will try a new layout for Saturday’s opening festivities. The carousel, Ferris wheel, tree and Santa’s Village will be placed close together on Fayetteville Street, part of an effort to create a compact footprint and avoid the need for long walks between venues.
“You always run the risk of too much in one area,” Diaz said. “If that’s the case, maybe we move it (next year). We’d rather have that problem than lack of activities and people wandering around looking for what to do.”
Bluegrass music isn’t exactly synonymous with the Christmas season. But there’s a reason for opening night performances by Nu Blu and The Kickin Grass Band.
The shows are billed as a warm-up act for the International Bluegrass Music Association, which will bring its weeklong convention and awards show to Raleigh for a three-year run starting in 2013.
Raleigh’s first edition of IBMA will be Sept. 23-29, including a four-day business conference and a three-day “Bluegrass Fan Fest” with more than 60 acts.