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The beautiful weather took a back seat to the costumes during the 22nd annual Festival at Bel Air Halloween Costume Parade and Contest, an event that made for an impressive turnout, estimated at approximately 5,000 people including 1,500 costumed characters.

“I think this is the most people we’ve ever had at the event,” Michael Blum, advertising and promotions coordinator for the Festival at Bel Air Shopping Center, said. “I want to thank our merchants Chuck E. Cheese’s, Planet Kids, Contés Bikes & Fitness and ExpressCare, for participating.”

Blum also thanked his volunteers and staff, as well as the greater community for attending the event.

“We [the shopping center] do it just to give families something to do for the Halloween event,” Blum said, “whether it be trick-or-treating at night or trick-or-treating during the day at commercial establishments.”

The event kicked off at 9:30 a.m. in the large lower parking lot in front of Chuck E. Cheese’s, with sign-ups for the contest and giveaways from local participating stores. Every child in costume received a trick-or-treat bag and candy, and those entering the costume-judging contest received pumpkins.

Deejay and guest host Dave Hovel from WXCY-FM blasted a mixture of haunting Halloween tunes and upbeat dance music throughout the event, as costumed characters Chuck E. Cheese, Helen the Chicken, Chuckie of Rug Rats fame, and others danced and mingled with the crowd and posed for photos with children.

At 10 a.m., the full procession commenced, with the costumed entrants marching around Chuck E. Cheese’s and surrounding buildings before lining up to begin the judging. All finalists received prize bags with gifts.

There was no shortage of costumed characters roaming about, with people dressed as everything from President Richard Nixon, to Mario and Luigi, to a hilarious depiction of the Kool-Aid man bursting through a red brick wall.

There were many excellent costumes, but the year of the stink bug proved too polarizing — Emily Kron, 8, of Havre de Grace, won the best costume with “The Brown Marmorated Stink Bug,” and a $100 gift certificate to Klein’s ShopRite.

The stinkbug was a crowd favorite, consistently eliciting the most cheers from the audience during the judging rounds.

Glen Kron, Emily’s father, who made the costume from scratch, said he received the inspiration for the costume from the sheer number of stinkbugs that plagued various parts of the county over the year.

“There were just so many stinkbugs through the year that it just seemed fitting,” Kron said. “We didn’t expect to win, but it was a pleasant surprise.”

The force was strong with the second best costume, as Tara Soul and family, from Aberdeen, dressed up as a complete ensemble of “Star Wars” characters, right down to C-3PO and R2-D2. The family won a $75 gift certificate to Chuck E. Cheese’s.

Third place went to “Tropical Paradise,” featuring palm trees, complete with hammock, a hula girl and a pink flamingo. Matthew and Tamara Gullion and their family, from Bel Air, received a $50 gift certificate to 5 Below.

Finally, a special grand prize $250 gift card to Kleins ShopRite, Chuck E. Cheese’s and 5 Below was awarded to Lauren Alanpi, of Aberdeen, costumed as a Pirate Family, who won the special ticket drawing.

Trick-or-treating became the focus of the event at the conclusion of the contest, with participating stores continuing to hand out candy to costumed children until 2 p.m.

Blum said one of the main differences at this year’s contest compared to previous ones was the consolidation of the categories into a single one.

“We used to do that in the past,” Blum said about separate costume judging categories. “We got away from that because there was no truly accurate way to do it. A lot of people dress up in families and there was no way to split them; the Star Wars second place group had ages 4 to 40.”

“It didn’t seem fair, so we decided to cover all the bases and just do the quality of the entry,” Blum said. “We try to focus more on the quality of the costume rather than the age of who is wearing it.”

When asked about improving the event for 2011, Blum spoke of focusing on the two main draws of the event separately.

“I think we’re going to bifurcate it,” Blum said, “so that the people there just for trick-or-treating can go do that, and the people for the costume contest will stay for that. We want to find a way to keep people there for the contest to stick around, so we’ll work on splitting the two up.”

Blum also stated his intention to add more activities to keep those in attendance engaged in the spirit of the event.

“We have to be very careful with the event because you have so many people arriving at once, and so many people leaving at once,” he added. “We want more things for people that show up to occupy their time with, since there are so many people in the area for such a short period of time.”

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