By Jeff Fox

It’s almost show time.

The area’s biggest annual festival – Santa-Cali-Gon Days, held each Labor Day weekend – opens this evening with the carnival on the block bounded by Kansas, Liberty, Walnut and Osage on the south edge of the Independence Square.

The main event, filling up the rest of the Square, kicks off at noon Friday.

“Things are looking really good. I’m pretty excited, actually,” said Lois McDonald, who has been the event’s main organizer for the Independence Chamber of Commerce, which sponsors the event.

The festival this year has about 60 food vendors, everything from Opti-Dogs to peach floats. Visitors also are drawn to the several tents full of about 300 booths with crafters and artisans.

The chamber also has made some changes. There is a fourth entertainment stage, the VIP section at the main stage is now off to the side for better access for fans, and sidewalks on the Square are being left open to make it easier for pedestrians to get around. There’s a car show on Kansas Avenue between Main and Osage.

A fourth stage, at Maple and Osage, is called Locally Grown Market and Music. The Independence farmers market sets up there in the morning, and then local bands take the stage in the evening. It’s organized by Chris and Havilah Bruders of Cadillac Flambe.

Much, however, is the same as festivalgoers have come to expect. The event is free, except for rides and other attractions at the carnival. Main stage headliners include country music star Joe Diffie on Friday night and rising star Brett Eldredge on Saturday.

Some highlights

• Festival hours are noon to 11 p.m. Friday, 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday.

• No pets on the festival grounds. McDonald points out that the busy atmosphere with lots of people around isn’t ideal for pets anyway.

• Carnival hours are 6 p.m. to midnight today, noon to midnight Friday, 10 a.m. to midnight Saturday and Sunday, and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday. There are no carnival coupons this year, but wristbands are $22 per day. Buy them at the carnival.

• Several churches, Scout troops and others charge for parking near the Square. The chamber says that’s typically $10 to $15. There’s also shuttle parking in two places. Park for free in the large lot behind the Community of Christ Auditorium (Walnut Avenue and River Boulevard) or at William Chrisman High School (Noland Road and U.S. 24). The shuttle ride costs $1. The shuttles run about every 15 minutes and are handicap-accessible. There’s no shuttle from Chrisman on Friday.

Main stage

• Friday – opening ceremonies at 7 p.m., followed by Delisa Dawn & Route 66 at 7:30 and Joe Diffie at 9.

• Saturday – 5:30 p.m. Rivertown KC, 7:15 p.m. 6 Degrees West, and 9 p.m. Brett Eldredge.

• Sunday – 5:30 p.m. Outlaw Jim & Whiskey Benders, 7:15 p.m. Blackjack Billy, and 9 p.m. LoCash Cowboys.

• Monday has a lineup of tribute bands – 11:30 a.m. Almost KISS, 1 p.m. Double Vision, and 3 p.m. Hells Bells.

Community stage

• Friday – 5:30 p.m. Claudia’s School of Dance; 6:30 p.m. Casa De Fitness; 7:30 p.m. Ballet Conservatory of Independence; 9 p.m. Klear Ambition.

• Saturday – 10 a.m. Fairmont Dancing Queens, 11 a.m. Kim’s Dance Co.; noon Cowtown Cloggers; 1 p.m. watermelon seed spitting contest; 2 p.m. Alex Sons; 3 p.m. Ta Jazz School of Dance; 4 p.m. Samoan Community Organization of Independence; 5 p.m. Cathy’s Creative Dance School; 6 p.m. Mosaic Oriental Dancers – Project Shimmy & Friends; 7 p.m. Studio 3V Dance Center; 8 p.m. Dancing in the Streets – audience participation.

• Sunday – 1 p.m. root beer chugging contest; 2 p.m. Mike Hillen; 3 p.m. Jazzercise Independence Fitness Center; 4 p.m. Mel Rose School of Dance; 5 p.m. Casi Joi; 6 p.m. Mic-O-Say Dancers.

• Monday – 1 p.m. ice cream eating contest; 2 p.m. You Plus Me (Brent & Audrey Ford); 3 p.m. Kansas City Public Library – storytelling.

Gospel stage

• Friday – 6:15 p.m. opening, 6:30 p.m. Freedom Gospel Group, 7:45 p.m. Shoal Creek Revival, 9 p.m. Phil and Pam Morgan.

• Saturday – 2 p.m. Dale Perry, 3:15 p.m. Kingdom Call, 4:30 p.m. Route 33, 6 p.m. Itza God Thing, 7:30 p.m. Jeff Lane + Made Worthy, 9 p.m. Anderson Family bluegrass.

• Sunday – 2 p.m. Grandeur, 3:30 p.m. Noland Road Baptist Praise Team, 5 p.m. Furst Lite, 6:30 p.m. Soul Purpose, 8 p.m. Barbwire Prophets, 9:30 p.m. Az-U-R.

• Monday – 12:30 p.m. TheRest, 1:45 p.m. Faith Temple Praise Group, 3 p.m. Viola Woods with guests Predestined and Benita Brady.