There’s only one Old Port.
The historically-charming waterfront shopping district of Maine’s largest city has no equal. No other place really looks or feels like it.
And the organizers of the annual Old Port Festival, scheduled for a 45th run on Sunday, want to make sure people know that. They want to make sure people can see how unique the place is.
That’s why over the past few years they’ve been scaling back on the carnival-style attractions that had become part of the festival, attractions one can find at any county fair. So when the festival opens Sunday there will be no carnival rides, no giant Ferris wheel and fewer out-of-state vendors parked in front of local businesses.
Instead, the festival will feature long-standing traditions like the kick-off parade featuring the giant puppets of Portland’s Shoestring Theater, several stages of local music and children’s entertainment, and local food vendors, food trucks and crafts.
“In the ’80s, it was a big drink fest, and then came the carnival-style vendors, and now it’s going back to what was intended to be, a showcase for everything in the Old Port,” said Chris Cummings, regional manager for the Maine-based Mexicali Blues stores, which have two locations on Moulton Street in the Old Port. “It’s really going back to being more local.”
The nonprofit group that runs the festival, Portland Downtown, made changes this year after surveying local businesses and local residents. One major change is that store owners no longer have to pay $100 fee to sell things outside in front of their store.
In the past some smaller businesses stayed closed festival day while outside vendors sold food or crafts outside their doors, said Casey Gilbert, executive director of Portland Downtown.
So this year 42 Old Port businesses will have vending tables selling their wares, when there were 27 last year. Also last year, about 140 of the festival’s 250 vendors – selling food, crafts and a variety of merchandise – were Maine-based. But this year, 209 out of 230 vendors are in-state.
The carnival rides area of the festival is being replaced with a “Touch A Truck” attraction. Local fire trucks, dump trucks, or buses will be on display for kids to explore.
The festival, as usual, will kickoff with a parade of puppets and stilt walkers down Exchange Street at 11 a.m. Then beginning at noon, there will be four stages of children’s entertainment and music, including many local bands, with performances every hour until 5 p.m.
One stage will be performers from the Maine Academy of Modern Music, a sort of “school of rock” where youngsters can take lessons and get help forming their own bands. A stage organized by Portland radio stations Coast 93.1 and WPOR will feature several country performers, including David Lee Murphy, who had a No. 1 hit in 1994 with “Dust on the Bottle,” and Maine-born country singer Keelan Donovan.
The WCLZ stage includes several Maine bands – Muddy Ruckus (Americana), Snughouse (Americana), The Mallett Brothers (country rock) and Spencer Albee (rock, pop) – plus Canadian singer-songwriter Serena Ryder (folk rock).
Snughouse is playing the festival for the first time, but the band’s guitar and piano player, Nikhil Dasgupta, has seen bands at the festival and knows it’s a great opportunity for local musicians. The festival’s estimated attendance is often around 30,000 people.
“Getting in front of that many people is a hard thing to do, so it’s a great opportunity,” said Dasgupta, 23. “I’ve seen bands there that I made a point to check out later.”
The Old Port Festival is part of the Summer Kickoff Weekend, organized by Portland Downtown. Friday and Saturday events were added in 2014 as a way to draw focus to Portland’s allure to visitors and shoppers in other parts of downtown beyond the core of the Old Port.
Friday’s Square Hop event will include four shows in downtown parks along or near Congress Street from 6-8 p.m.: the Maine Marimba Ensemble in Post Office Park, the Casco Bay Movers dancing in Monument Square, Maine Academy of Modern Music in Congress Square Park and a performance advancing the PortFringe theater festival in Longfellow Square.
Saturday is Shop for A Cause Day, with participating businesses donating a portion of sales to the Franny Peabody Center, an HIV/AIDS organization in Portland. Saturday is also Walk The Working Waterfront day, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Maps available at the head of Union Wharf will detail waterfront areas, boats and businesses people can visit, including places not usually open to the public. Get more info on waterfront events at portlandmaine.com.
WHERE: Downtown Portland’s Old Port area, roughly from Congress Street near City Hall to Commercial Street
WHEN: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday
HOW MUCH: Free admission, food and crafts for sale
Children’s Stage, Post Office Park
Different performances hourly from noon to 4 p.m., including Dustin LeVasseur & Friends at noon and Mad Science of Maine at 2 p.m.
WCLZ Stage, Fore and Silver streets
Noon — Snughouse
1 p.m. — Muddy Ruckus
2 p.m. — Spencer Albee
3 p.m. — Serena Ryder
4 p.m. — The Mallet Brothers Band
Coast 93.1 and WPOR Stage, Middle and Temple streets
Noon — David Lee Murphy
1:30 p.m. — Brandon Lay
3 p.m. — Mat Kearny
4 p.m. — Keelan Donovan
Maine Academy of Modern Music Stage, Commercial and Dana streets
Noon — MAMMOTH Brass Band, Rock Chorus and Strings
1 p.m. — Kids Rock
2 p.m. — Girls Rock
3 p.m. — Teens Rock
4 p.m. — MAMM Slam winners