OCEAN CITY — The resort’s 47th Annual Sunfest opened on Thursday for the first time in late October.
For nearly five decades, Sunfest occupied the third weekend in September with its food tents, arts and crafts and other vendors, beer and wine and live music. While much of that remains the same for the annual festival that opened on Thursday, much has changed this year.
Earlier this year, the Mayor and Council discussed the fall special events calendar with multiple significant events stacked up in mid- to late September. Out of those discussions came a recommendation to move Sunfest, a sacred cow of sorts on the September special events calendar, back to this weekend, Oct. 20-23.
The decision, which has been met with heartburn for many longtime Sunfest traditionalists, came after a review of some potentially unwieldy logistical issues created by the major special events themselves and the town’s support services such as public works and public safety, for example. Bike Week held its usual mid-September time slot and adding to the mix this year was the inaugural Oceans Calling three-day music festival.
The remnants of Hurricane Ian coupled with a Nor’easter caused the cancellation of the inaugural Oceans Calling festival. Ironically, in prior years that would have been the traditional weekend for Sunfest, which has seen its fair share of weather-related cancellations.
The result was the move of Sunfest to this weekend, which appears to be fortuitous. The weekend weather forecast looks great aside for a chance of showers on Sunday, and the event is chockful of the traditional Sunfest elements including a wide variety of food offerings, beer and wine, arts and crafts vendors and live music. Because of the date change to late October, the town this year has coupled Sunfest with the popular OCtober events in and around the south end of the Boardwalk including the beach maze, the Great Pumpkin Race, drive in disguise and trunk or treat, for example.
The live music schedule has also been altered from the traditional format, which included major headline acts on Friday and Saturday night of Sunfest with ticketed events. This year, the lineup includes a heavy dose of local bands, regional bands and tribute bands with six acts performing each day, three on the smaller midway stage and three on the beach stage. All the live entertainment is free this year with no national acts.
Another new addition in this year’s modified Sunfest are events on the beach. The events include hayrides, dock dog competitions, sandcastle competitions, beach tennis, inflatables, corn hole competitions and others. Sunfest this year also includes several bicycle-related elements, including a bike sprint race, bike swap meet and bike show and shine.
In conjunction with the traditional OCtober event, Sunfest this year will also include several pet-friendly amenities including casual pet competitions. The pet-friendly events will mostly be held on Sunday. They include a most tail wags competition, a ball catch competition, agility tests, musical chairs and the always popular pet parade.
Of course, the food and beverage offerings have always been a highlight of Sunfest and that hasn’t changed. What has changed, however, is the addition of the Shore Craft Beer Garden by Burley Oak. Shore Craft Beer and Burley Oak have partnered with the Ocean City Development Corporation (OCDC) to bring an Octoberfest-style beer garden to Sunfest this year.
The traditional domestic draft beer options will still be available in various areas throughout the festival venue, but festivalgoers will have the option to head to the craft beer garden to enjoy six different local craft beers from Burley Oak. Attendees can enter the beer garden within the festival grounds, enjoy a local craft beer, find a seat and relax as they listen to live music nearby.
Finally, each night of Sunfest will conclude with a crescendo of sorts. On Friday night, attendees will be treated to a drone show at the end of the day. On Saturday, a fireworks show will close out the day along with beach bonfires and reggae music.
According to Ocean City Hotel-Motel-Restaurant Association Executive Director Susan Jones, stretching the season was the original intent of Sunfest nearly 50 years ago and with the retention of many of the traditional elements along with the new features including the OCtober events, it promises to continue to do that.
“Given that Sunfest was originally created to expand the season, I think this date change will work well, especially given the expanded activities and inclusion with Octoberfest,” said Jones. “Change brings apprehension, but it’s always what allows for new memories.”
No decisions have been made on the long-term future for Sunfest dates and this year’s event will likely be evaluated this offseason. It has been a bit of a moving target in recent years. Sunfest was cancelled entirely during the height of the pandemic in 2020, and returned in 2021 in a modified, more spread-out format. In 2019, the last year prior to COVID when Sunfest was in its traditional format and calendar slot, it drew over 300,000 visitors, a new record that topped the old high-water mark by over 50,000.