VALPARAISO | Though she hasn't lived in Valparaiso for many years, Emily McInerney always returns to her former hometown for the Popcorn Festival.
The Villa Park, Ill., resident runs in the Popcorn Panic race each year before browsing through hundreds of vendor booths stocked with items ranging from jewelry and clothing to crafts and baked goods.
Now in its 35th year, the event includes traditions such as the Popcorn Panic run/walk, the Lit'l Kernel Puff kiddie run, the Orville Redenbacher Parade and the Kids Poppin’ and Play Place with inflatable rides.
About 55,000 to 60,000 people were expected to swarm the downtown for those activities and to hear music by the Highway Band, Lubriphonic, Crawpuppies and Gin Blossoms.
“It's a great way for visitors to see the town and what it has to offer,” McInerney said.
Her fiance, Bobby Mielke, also of Villa Park, said he likes looking at the older homes that surround the downtown.
“It's a beautiful town,” he said.
The couple was joined by McInerney's aunt, Sue Smith, of Valparaiso, who comes to the fest every year.
“While they're running (in the Popcorn Panic), I'm scoping out the shops that we'll come back to,” said Smith, who tried on several blouses in the Ivy Boutique booth on Washington Street.
Ivy Boutique owner Dina Ranieri was participating in her first Popcorn Fest, having opened her store in November. Her sales on apparel, accessories, and items for the bath and home started Tuesday.
“It's been a very good week,” she said.
At the American Girl doll clothes and accessories booth, Valparaiso resident Tessie Horning and her daughters, Lilly, 8, and Ellen, 5, bought a mermaid outfit for Ellen's doll.
Horning said she and her family had just moved to Valparaiso from Kansas, and they were attending the fest for the first time. The girls planned to run in the Lit'l Kernel Puff race.
“So far, it's great,” Horning said. “We're just going to enjoy the day.”
American Girl clothes vendor Marie Bardwell, of Merrillville, said she's had a booth at the fest for about five or six years.
“I have repeat customers who look for me here,” she said. “This is one of my best shows of all time.”
Bardwell's friend, Mary Feaster, of Tinley Park, sold her handmade beaded and crocheted necklaces, bracelets and earrings in a booth next to Bardwell's.
Feaster has worked the fest for the past five years and keeps coming back because she likes the atmosphere, crowd, food and especially the festival's namesake.
“It's the popcorn,” she said. “That was the original draw.”