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

December 7, 2018

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 on Saturday, 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 sizeable 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: The float is 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,” Wilson 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; “Frozen” motifs as well as other Disney animation 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.”

m.biekert@theday.com

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