For Kat Paye, the summer—indeed, the whole year—revolves around the National Cherry Festival. As the executive director of the celebration of all things cherry, that’s only natural, but she’s been an enthusiast of the festival for nearly as long as she’s been alive. A volunteer since 1994 and the operations director from 2012 until ascending to her current role, Paye is familiar with all facets of the eight-day festival.

Kat is quick to praise all those involved, from other staff to volunteers and community organizations. “I’m cognizant we don’t do what we do alone. It takes a village.”

This year, Kat is looking forward to being able to see and participate in the events more. “As the operations director, I was involved in setup and teardown. So I’m excited to see a little or a lot more.”

Paye took over as executive director in October 2016. This being her first National Cherry Festival as executive director, we put her on the spot: What are her 10 favorite events or features? While she said she loved everything about it (of course), she did agree to play. Here then are her Top 10 National Cherry Festival events, in reverse order.

  1. Air Shows. “I do love the air shows. This year we have the U.S. Army Golden Knights parachute team. We haven’t done that in nine years. Not a lot of festivals have an over-the-water air show. As the team goes over, it still gives me goosebumps.”

U.S. Army SSG Travis Downing, member of the U.S. Army Parachute Team

  1. Festival of Races. “We have them run through a cherry orchard for the half marathon. It promotes health and wellness and (participants) can do things in groups. You see families do them together. Because it’s been going 30 years, you see a second generation. ”

  1. Hole in One Contest. “It’s different than everything else and the money goes to the junior golf association. They run the event and we can make a large contribution.”

  1. Parades. No, Kat, you can’t lump them all in together. “OK, then it’s the Cherry Royale Parade. It’s the one our ambassadors lead. The heart of what we do is our volunteer corps. My favorite place to watch is the parade chute.”

  1. Turtle Races. “It’s a kids’ event. You can bring your own or we provide them at F&M Park. They don’t go very fast. It’s a riot. It’s a joy to see their faces light up.” Presumably meaning the kids’ faces, not the turtles. “It has been around a while—I remember it as a little kid. I was a big turtle racer.”

  1. Princess Tea Party. “It’s a ticketed event at the Hagerty Center. It’s tea and cookies with tables elaborately decorated. The little kids in their princess regalia. It’s like every Disney (princess) movie dusted with sugar. The queen and her court are all there. The funds received benefit the queen scholarship.”

  1. Orchard Tours. “The MSU Horticultural Station guys provide an opportunity to see how pollination works. You get a wagon ride by a true cherry grower, learn how they’re grown and even why we have a festival, how it all originated.”

  1. Cherry Farm Market. “It’s where you can purchase everything cherry: jerky, cheese, butter. I’m amazed every year at the things local producers can put cherries into.”

  1. Pit-Spitting Contest, which includes the queen and her court participating while dressed in all their queenly finery. “It’s the oldest event and has everything to do with cherries. You roll it around in your mouth and then spit as far as you can. The record is more than 70 feet.”

And #1 with a bullet: “My top event is of course the cherry pie eating contest (adults and kids). It’s something everyone should do. It makes you feel like a kid. I haven’t managed to beat anyone, but it is so cool to watch all the little kids. And adults become great big kids. The kids look on in wonderment with cherries all over their faces. They are so mesmerized. It’s hysterical to watch.”

More National Cherry Festival Fun:

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Photo(s) by National Cherry Festival