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Crowds come out to star gaze at Sun Fun Festival in Myrtle Beach

Helen Martin and her adventure buddy Judy Childs, both of Seneca, spent the last day of their vacation Saturday in lines at the Sun Fun Festival in Grand Park across Farrow Parkway from The Market Common.

``I've been in line since I got here,'' Martin said at about 3:30 p.m., a broad smile on her face.

They had been waiting for about two hours with many others - new friends, Martin said - for an autograph and picture with Jason Earles that Martin promised her granddaughter, 8-year-old Sarah-Parker Martin in Greenville.

Earles, who plays Jackson Stewart on Disney's ``Hannah Montana,'' agreed to an extra two hours at the festival because of all the fans waiting to see him. As Martin and Childs slowly neared the final turn into Earles' tent, representatives of the Myrtal Beach Area Chamber of Commerce told those in line to be ready with cameras and to keep moving through their moment with the star.

The two were among an estimated 40,000 to 50,000 that crowded the festival area by lateSaturday afternoon, according to Brad Dean, the chamber's chief executive officer.

Last year, the crowd was estimated at 38,000, and visitors and vendors said taking the hot sun out of Sun Fun may have been one reason for the increase. Another was that there were more than 100 vendors for this year's festival, about twice as many as last year.

Lines of cars were still streaming into the festival site at 5 p.m. for the evening's entertainment, which included the 58th annual Sun Fun Festival Welcome Ceremony with professional wrestler Ric Flair and a 7 p.m. concert by Lifehouse.

Martin and Childs said they were headed right from Earles' line to get an autograph and photo with Flair, a surprise for their husbands.

The overcast skies undoubtedly made things cooler for those waiting in lines for celebrities and children's activities, but they probably didn't do much for beer sales, a first for the festival this year.

``If it was hotter, we would sell more,'' said Mike Lubas of Rent-A-Tender, who supplied bartenders for bottle and draft Budweiser sales at a booth near the main stage.

Bartender Amanda Sollecito estimated they had sold about 40 by 3 p.m., but expected sales of the $3 each drafts and $6 each 22 oz. bottles to pick up during the evening concert.

A sign outside the booth said individuals were limited to two beers each.

Nearby, Louella West of Myrtle Beach rested in a portable chair on the lawn in front of the stage as her daughter and grandchildren wandered the festival grounds. She estimated she had spent about $100 so far and thought she might drop a few more bucks before she left.

``It looks like we got more people than last year,'' West summed up the crowd. ``And more entertainment.''

Elena Manfredini of Surfside Beach and Charlotte said she was doing OK at her booth selling handmade jewelry across the lake from where West sat.

She and others paid $180 total for the space at the festival and at the Beach Boogie & BBQ to be held in the fall.

She said the day started slowly with clouds that appeared certain to drop rain.

``Then all of a sudden,'' she said, ``the place was packed.''