What to expect at this year’s biggest and best ME Carnival

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Just when you thought February nights in Maine were long, dark and quiet, here comes Carnival ME.

The 10-day Winter Festival on Portland’s East Boardwalk opens Thursday. It will light up the night sky with fireworks and fill the wintry air with live music. It will also feature food, craft beer, ice sculpting, ski and snowboard demonstrations and live theater performances. Country music star Scotty McCreery will close the festival with an evening concert on February 26.

This will be the second ME Carnival and will be a huge expansion from the two-day event held on the Eastern Promenade on the last weekend of January 2020, before the pandemic. The event will be held mostly outdoors and is expected to attract 25,000 people while it runs, according to Shamrock Sports and Entertainment, the event organizer.

Ignatius Bidwell, 7, left, of Portland watches Janoah Bailin of The Way We Move juggle in the 2020 ME Carnival igloo. Staff photo by Jill Brady

The festival is offering so much more this year to try to meet a demand for winter things to do in Greater Portland, said Brian Corcoran, CEO of Shamrock Sports & Entertainment. In the summer, families can find outdoor concerts and fireworks fairly easily, but not so much in the winter. The fact that the pandemic has limited people’s entertainment options and activities over the past two years has also been a factor in planning the festival.

“I think there’s a pent-up demand for things to do, for entertainment,” Corcoran said. “We have tried to offer a festival that appeals to a wide audience. The market is really underserved in entertainment during the shoulder seasons, during the darkest days.

Corcoran says about “90%” of festival activities – including concerts and fireworks – will take place outdoors. Some events, like Maddy’s Theater band performances and Bites & Brews food and craft beer pairings, will take place in a giant inflatable igloo. The igloo can accommodate 500 people but its capacity will be limited to 300, Corcoran said.

Anyone entering the festival grounds must present proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test. ME Carnival organizers are following Portland’s policies for city-owned venues — which is Eastern Promenade Park, said Andrew Downs, director of public gathering facilities for the city. At press time, this meant that anyone inside the igloo or tents would be required to wear a mask without eating, although this policy could change or be updated once the festival begins.

The festival kicks off with a Thursday night gala in the igloo, featuring food, drink and music from 80s cover band The Time Pilots. The gala, which costs $100, is a fundraiser to benefit Maine’s WinterKids activity program.

Ice sculpting demonstrations will be part of the ME Carnival, February 17-26. The illustrated demo is from the 2020 event. Photo by Tim Greenway

The full list of festival activities kicks off on Friday and a schedule of all events and related information is available online at carnivalme.com. Most days there will be two sessions, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. General admission tickets are $15 and $25 in advance, $20 and $30 starting Thursday. The festival grounds and stage will primarily be set up along Cutter Street, which leads from the top of the east promenade to the Casco Bay boat launch.

Friday’s daytime activities will include ice sculpting, a performance by Maddy’s Theater in the igloo, and practice sessions for skiers and snowboarders who will be competing in the USASA Rail Jam event later Friday. A course for the competitors will be set up on the hill of the East Promenade.

On Friday night, there will be a fireworks show at 7 p.m., hosted by Central Maine Pyrotechnics, the company that has handled the July 4 fireworks in Portland for the past few years. Unlike July 4, no through streets in the Munjoy Hill neighborhood will be closed for the show, said Portland City spokeswoman Jessica Grondin.

Also Friday night will feature a concert by Maine band The Ghost of Paul Revere, a Bites & Brews session, and competitive USASA Rail Jam racing. The number of people at any one session of the festival – afternoon or evening – is limited to 2,500, festival organizers said.

Country singer Scotty McCreery will perform Carnival ME in Portland on February 26. Photo by Jeff Ray

On Saturday, the daytime session includes ice sculpting, Maddy’s Theatre, a Bites & Brews session and a Girls Just Want to Have Fun concert. The Saturday night session includes the Sunday River Rail Jam, music from Firefly, a Bites & Brews session and a concert by Maine funk band Motor Booty Affair.

Some of the first weekend’s Bites & Brews restaurant and brewer deals include Luke’s Lobster with Allagash Brewing, Eighty8 Donuts with Coffee By Design, Navis Cafe with Shipyard Brewing, and Nighthawk’s Kitchen with Mast Landing Brewing. Bites & Brews tickets, which include admission to the festival, are $65 in advance, $70 once the festival begins.

Some of the other musicians and bands scheduled to perform during the festival include Pete Kilpatrick at noon on February 20, Viva & The Reinforcements at 8 p.m. on February 24, Jason Spooner Band at 2 p.m. on February 25, Hello Newman at 8 p.m. February and nationally known country star Scotty McCreery at 7:30 p.m. on February 26.

There is free parking for festival ticket holders at the city’s Ocean Gateway lot as well as free festival shuttles. There are two days during the duration of the festival – February 22 and 23 – when no public events will take place.

Corcoran hopes Carnaval ME will become Portland’s version of the famous winter carnival in Quebec City, five hours north of Canada. This event began in 1894 and has taken place every year since 1955, according to the Quebec City website. Corcoran thinks the Mainers are tough enough to embrace a winter festival, as their Canadian neighbors did.


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