Niantic Light Pa­rade: Adults claim it’s all for the kids

Com­mu­nity event cel­e­brates its 30th year with big­ger, bet­ter floats

The Day - - FRONT PAGE - By MARY BIEKERT Day Staff Writer

East Lyme — Rain­bow foam pool noo­dles. Hula hoops. Yards of ar­ti­fi­cial “buf­falo snow.” And thou­sands upon thou­sands of Christ­mas lights.

Those are just a few items that Sign Craft owner John Wil­son used to cre­ate a float this year for the Niantic Light Pa­rade — the an­nual cel­e­bra­tion that il­lu­mi­nates down­town’s Main Street and brings the East Lyme and sur­round­ing com­mu­ni­ties to­gether for a pre-Christ­mas tra­di­tion.

The pa­rade cel­e­brates its 30th an­niver­sary to­day, and town of­fi­cials, as well as hun­dreds of float builders, are putting in ex­tra ef­fort to make it a mem­o­rable night. This year, the pa­rade kicks off with a fire­works show at 6 p.m.

“Hav­ing done this for 30 years now, it’s get­ting harder and harder to come up with some­thing new that we haven’t done be­fore, or that some­one else hasn’t done be­fore,” Wil­son said Tues­day evening while stand­ing in his Niantic garage, where, hid­den from the pub­lic eye, this year’s float was tak­ing shape.

Wil­son has be­come an icon of sorts for the large and or­nate floats he builds each year with his siz­able team of vol­un­teers.

“I re­mem­ber when it started as a small pa­rade, where on Satur­day morn­ing you would just wake up and throw to­gether a float,” Wil­son said.

He rem­i­nisced how he dressed up like a tree for that first light pa­rade, with sticks and Christ­mas lights taped to his 1980s “Eskimo jacket.” The sec­ond year, he said, he towed a boat dec­o­rated with

Christ­mas lights.

“A lot of it back then was dis­guis­ing ve­hi­cles,” he said. “Now, peo­ple are spend­ing weeks, or even months, build­ing floats.”

Wil­son’s en­thu­si­asm for the pa­rade, lead­ing up to it and on the day of, in­spires oth­ers. If res­i­dents aren’t build­ing their own floats of equal size and scope, many have found ways to help Wil­son in his own en­deav­ors.

“I have lo­cal busi­nesses that will give us pizza to help feed the team,” Wil­son said. “Peo­ple will come in and throw money down on the counter to help pay for the floats. I think peo­ple just re­ally love the pa­rade and don’t want to see it die.”

“Peo­ple keep ask­ing us if we are ever go­ing to stop. I say, ‘Hey, we’ve reached 30 years now. Might as well get to 50,’” he said.

For the sake of those at­tend­ing this year’s pa­rade, The Day won’t re­veal Wil­son’s float de­sign. But we will say this: It’s large, bright and round.

“We only just came up with the idea for this year’s float two weeks ago,” Wil­son said, ex­plain­ing that, in a last-minute search for in­spi­ra­tion, he walked down the Wal­mart toy aisle to suss out po­ten­tial ideas.

“It’s also dif­fi­cult to come up with Christ­mas-themed ideas,” he added.

But as pre­vi­ous years have shown, Christ­mas themes don’t al­ways dic­tate what comes rolling down Main Street. Wil­son has dreamed up floats fea­tur­ing fly­ing planes and he­li­copters at­tached to his bucket truck; bright and col­or­ful “Finding Nemo” beach­scapes with palm trees, and “Frozen” mo­tifs, as well as other Dis­ney an­i­mated clas­sics; and, of all things, a gi­ant, jump­ing jack-in-the-box, among themes re­lated to sports and pop cul­ture.

Be­sides think­ing of de­signs, Wil­son said he and his team imag­ine how to en­gage those watch­ing.

“I’ll take the mi­cro­phone, we’ll throw out candy,” he said. “We like to play ’70s disco to get them danc­ing.”

‘Like chil­dren build­ing a fort’

Mak­ing the floats a re­al­ity is a dif­fi­cult task — one that re­quires hun­dreds of hours.

The men in­volved, Wil­son jok­ingly ex­plains, go into the garage and “work like chil­dren build­ing a fort,” piec­ing to­gether ply­wood, plas­tic tub­ing and shrink wrap, un­til some­thing comes to­gether, while the women sit in­side, fo­cus­ing on the smaller de­tails that bring the float to­gether. In the fi­nal days lead­ing to the pa­rade, ev­ery­one helps build out the truck that will hold the main piece.

On Tues­day, Wil­son’s wife, Julie, their daugh­ters and many other close friends re­pur­posed palm-tree leaves from years past into newly in­spired Christ­mas trees out­lined with tin­sel and flair.

“It’s just so much fun, work­ing to­gether and bounc­ing ideas off each other,” Julie said. “One of my fa­vorite years was when we did ‘Finding Nemo,’ and we used ex­pand­ing in­su­la­tion foam to cre­ate the coral. We just cre­ate on the fly and go with it.”

“We have a way of work­ing that doesn’t al­ways go to plan,” Wil­son added. “A lot of times we don’t mea­sure any­thing. We just eye­ball it, and then we stand back and say, ‘Hey, that looks all right.”

Af­ter se­lect­ing a theme or a char­ac­ter to base the float around, Wil­son draws out pre­lim­i­nary de­signs (of­ten on nap­kins, he jokes) be­fore cre­at­ing mini-repli­cas with card­board.

“There’s re­ally a lot more that goes into this than meets the eye,” Wil­son’s brother Pa­trick said while stand­ing on a lad­der at the front of this year’s float. “There are a lot of me­chan­ics in­volved. We have to find ways to wire these floats, to make sure all the lights are work­ing and that the gen­er­a­tor is work­ing for the full hour or more we are in the pa­rade.

“We’ll of­ten even be mak­ing last-minute tweaks un­til the very last mo­ment,” he con­tin­ued. “We’ll be screw­ing down wires and lights, even as the float is turn­ing onto Main Street.”

But such on-the-fly plan­ning in­evitably leads to some mishaps.

“There was one year we wanted to make a rein­deer but then the nose of it didn’t look like a rein­deer,” Wil­son said. “So we just made it into a don­key, and went with a Do­minick-the-Christ­mas Don­key theme.”

“We’ll have power outs, and a whole strip of lights will go out,” Pa­trick said. “Or the boom won’t move up and down.”

But all of that, they said, is worth the trou­ble and ef­fort. Be­sides bring­ing a com­mu­nity to­gether each year, the pa­rade of­fers Wil­son and all those in­volved a chance to in­spire the chil­dren and fam­i­lies that come out to watch.

“All the work is worth it for that one hour of pa­rade time. The lit­tle kids, you know, their eyes are huge. They’re price­less. You made their whole day, their whole year. It’s all for the kids,” Pa­trick said.

Wil­son and his wife agreed. “It’s re­ally all for the kids.”

“I re­mem­ber when it started as a small pa­rade, where on Satur­day morn­ing you would just wake up and throw to­gether a float . ... A lot of it back then was dis­guis­ing ve­hi­cles. Now, peo­ple are spend­ing weeks, or even months, build­ing floats.” JOHN WIL­SON, SIGN CRAFT OWNER AND PA­RADE PAR­TIC­I­PANT

DANA JENSEN/THE DAY

From left, John Wil­son of Sign Craft, Jeff San­ders of Water­ford, Spencer Beers of Beers Inc. and Rew Wil­son of Niantic in­stall tub­ing on the wood frame to cre­ate the shape of the float they are build­ing over a bucket truck Thurs­day for the Sign Craft en­try in the Niantic Light Pa­rade. The crew was busy in the Beers Inc. garage and other el­e­ments of the float were be­ing cre­ated in the Sign Craft shop.

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