Photo courtesy of THE PINELLAS PARK HISTORICAL SOCIETY
Santa waves to the crowd during one of the first Pinellas Park Christmas Parades in 1974.
PINELLAS PARK – A little over four decades ago, Karen Paquette-Wilson and her husband Vel Paquette, now deceased, dreamed up a Christmas parade for Pinellas Park while on a camping trip with friends.
Now, 40 years later, the Holiday Parade, originally called the Christmas Parade, has grown into one of the largest in the county, and the timeless tradition is synonymous with Pinellas Park, a city that takes the holiday season very seriously.
This year’s celebration is Saturday, Dec. 8 – always the second Saturday of the month – along Park Boulevard starting at 6 p.m.
“All of us were just sitting around a picnic table, laughing, and someone said, ‘You know, we should start a parade,’” Paquette-Wilson said. “That’s how it all began. And it’s really turned into quite the thing after all these years. Though I’m surprised it’s 40 years old. I can’t believe how time flies.”
After their trip, the friends – three married couples that also included Chick and Barbara Southby and Nancy and Merle Gregory – formed the Pinellas Park Sun Council and began planning the city’s first parade. Without any financial support from the city or prior experience organizing a large-scale event. The parade was a grassroots, trial-and-error effort. As beginners, everything was new to them: liability insurance, road closures, lineups.
“But we learned as we went along,” Paquette-Wilson said.
“We used to stand out by where Home Depot is now, ringing bells, asking people to help support us,” she added. “We did what we could and banged on people’s doors for money. They were tough times.”
That first parade, held in 1972 and with a route that made its way from the baseball field by City Hall to Park Plaza at Park Boulevard and 49th Street, had just 20 participants. Still, it was considered a giant hometown success.
“There were so many calls after that first parade telling us how great it was,” Paquette-Wilson said.
So the group trudged forward, collecting money to fund the annual celebration, always held the second Saturday in December, wherever it could. Eventually, the Sun Council turned into the Pinellas Park Freedom Fund Council. And the lineup continued to grow, with some parades in recent years reaching over 150 participants. As the lineup grew, the parade route evolved as well. These days, the city shuts down Park Boulevard westbound from 58th Street all the way to The Shoppes at Park Place. The city also now provides some financial support.
Groups participating have become more eclectic over the years, as well. All the groups you’d expect to find in a local parade – the Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, civic and youth athletics groups, local businesses, car clubs, the fire and police departments – still march and make up the core of participants.
But the list has grown to include the Suncoast Ghostbusters, the Krewe of Conquistadors of Tampa Bay, Uptown Clowns of Largo and the Star Wars-themed 501st Legion. The number of high school marching bands performing, always a crowd favorite, has increased over the years as well. This year, seven bands, including the band from Pinellas Park High School, will perform.
And in 1994, the parade made a major change by moving from the daytime to the nighttime. “It was an old guard versus new guard type of thing,” said Ricky Butler, operating director of Celebrate Pinellas Park, the group that currently organizes the parade. “We stay true to the hometown tradition” but now it doesn’t conflict with other daytime activities.
“And it’s a lot more fun being able to decorate the floats with lights,” he said.
When the parade moved to the evening, Butler said participation and attendance doubled. It attracts up to 12,000 people from all around the Tampa Bay area, he said.
Celebrate Pinellas Park has instituted several changes this year in an effort to streamline the parade and cut down on costs. Applications were limited to 100 spots because the number of participants had gotten out of control in previous years, Butler said, and the parade had stretched to over two hours.
“It just got to be way too much. Tradition is great, but we want to have more structure to make it even better,” he said.
Because spots in the parade’s lineup were limited, the group also increased the application fee for commercial entries from $25 to $50.
Since Butler took over the parade in 2007, Celebrate Pinellas Park has turned from paper applications sent in by mail to online forms. The group has also updated its website and relies heavily on social media sites like Facebook.
“It’s the 2000s. It was time to get a better website,” he said.
He even polled the group’s fans on Facebook to determine this year’s parade theme, which is simply no core theme at all.
“The response was overwhelming,” he said.
Butler’s father, City Councilman Rick Butler, just a local business owner and member of the Pinellas Park/Gateway Chamber of Commerce when he first got involved with the parade in the early ‘90s, remembers a time when volunteers would gather the day after Thanksgiving and line up participants’ physical paper applications on the street behind his business, Rick Butler Realty on Park Boulevard.
“But we’ve grown too much over the years for that,” he said. “We’ve come a long way.”