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What is the Azalea Festival Garden Party?

Judy Royal

If you’re a local, you’ve undoubtedly heard about the Azalea Festival Garden Party but may not be quite sure what it is. You just know there’s a whole lot of to-do about it in early April. Even if you’ve tried to Google it you’ve probably come up short and are still scratching your head about what this mysterious event is all about.

First off, the garden party, which is formally known as the Airlie Gardens Luncheon, is a completely separate event from Garden Tour and its ribbon-cutting ceremony, which is described in another entry on this site.

The garden party takes place on the Friday of the festival (this year April 3), when Queen Azalea and the Belles leave the the garden tour opening ceremony and head over to Airlie Gardens around midday for a luncheon with, in some years, thousands of others who were lucky enough to land a ticket, sort of a Who’s Who of Wilmington. It’s quintessential Old South at its finest, complete with Citadel cadets escorting the Queen and her “subjects,” men in seersucker suits and women in the frilliest spring dresses you’ve ever seen topped with hats of all sizes, colors and shapes. For some ladies, this is the one time a year you will catch them in a hat and they go all out to relish in the occasion.

It’s most likely fanciest pig pickin’ you’ve ever seen. Guests line up in their Sunday finest to dine on barbecue, fried chicken, sweet tea, hushpuppies and other Southern favorites that, for the past many years, have been trucked in from Bill Ellis in Wilson. If you’re over 21, which includes most guests except the Azalea Belles and some of the cadets, there are tents full of bartenders waiting to make you whatever alcohol-laden concoction your heart desires. Bloody Marys and mimosas are a favorite of the day.

So how do you get into this magnificent feast of Southern heritage? Sorry, but this one’s a private event that you likely won’t land a ticket to unless you know someone important, and in some cases, are willing to shell out big bucks. Tickets are reserved for Festival Patrons, which means those who have donated $1,000 or more to the Azalea Festival. According to 2009 sponsorship information, Patrons get two tickets to the garden party included in their donation package. Then they have an option to purchase up to four more at a price of $150 each. Tickets as recently as 2006 went for $75 each, but in 2007 the price doubled and has remained at $150 since then.

If your budget doesn’t make admission to the garden party a reality for you, you can still get in on some of the action. Around 5 p.m. the party migrates over to Dockside and The Bridge Tender, two restaurants along the Intracoastal Waterway just before you cross into Wrightsville Beach that host what is commonly referred to as the “after party.” You’ll still get to see all the hats and frills without the hefty price tag, and the conversation will likely be very spirited by then as many guests have been imbibing for hours. If you’ve been meaning to ask someone important for a favor, this might be a good time!

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One Response to “ What is the Azalea Festival Garden Party?”

  1. On April 2, 2011 at 3:13 am me wrote:

    The azalea festival has become so much about who you know, and how much money you have to spend to attend the garden party, etc. ( not to mention having to buy the perfect dress and hat for the event) I have lived here since I was born, and now at only 35 years old, I feel like I have to stay home to avoid the traffic and craziness of the event. you can’t go downtown because there is not enough parking, etc. I also think the event has become more for tourists than locals. what happened to treasuring the locals!?!

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