Abbotsford Christmas parade goes to drive-thru mode this year
The coronavirus has upended lives and changed so much this year, but one thing it won’t be touching in 2020 is the magic of the Abbotsford Christmas Parade.
Since 1971, the city of Abbotsford has proudly played host to an annual holiday tradition unlike any other in the state. Neither ice nor rain nor sleet has stopped the parade in the past, and now you can add COVID-19 to that list.
That’s right, not even COVID-19 will stop Abbotsford from hosting the 49-1/2 Christmas parade. Why the half? Well, for that answer, you’d have to talk to Kris O’Leary, who’s run the show for years.
“This year would have been the 50th anniversary of the Christmas parade, and when we started planning, the idea was to have a big celebration, some sort of spectacle at the parade, like fireworks,” O’Leary said.
“Obviously, everything kind of went out the window when we realized COVID was here and not going away anytime soon. So my son said to me, ‘Mom, this can’t be the 50th.’ So we decided to bill this one as the 49-1/2 so hopefully next year we can have the 50th, and have it the way we want.”
This year’s parade will go on, but will be a drive-thru event, with no need for visitors to find parking or dress in layers.
“We’re going to do a drive-thru parade, which means the floats will mostly be staying still,” O’Leary explained. “We’re hoping Puff will be able to greet people, and hopefully we can find some room for the train to move around a little bit, but people will drive through the parade and social distance from the characters.”
The parade will start in the main entrance of the parking lot at the TP Printing Company, with parade-goers entering from the south side of Spruce Street (Business 29) by turning into 103 Spruce St. Colby-Abby police officers will coordinate traffic and guide enthusiastic viewers into the parking lot.
“There will be floats parked in here, and it will wrap around the building. There will be floats parked back towards the back of the building and then however far back we need to go towards Linden Street,” O’Leary said. “You cannot walk through the parade route — you can only drive through it. You have to be in some kind of vehicle.”
Characters will be on the floats and waving hello, eager to see children and folks from across the area, all while staying socially distanced. This includes a pirate and space ships, and even a dragon!
Around 40 floats will be on hand along with the characters that go with the float. The parade will be held on Saturday, Dec. 5, and is slated to start at 5 p.m. and run until 8:30 p.m.
The fact that Abbotsford is having a parade comes as a relief to many, who long to see some return to normalcy in the face of the coronavirus. While O’Leary had her doubts earlier this year, the more she thought about the parade, the more she realized it could be done.
“I think when COVID started back in March we thought ‘We’ll see what happens. The parade might happen, it might not.’ By fall, when I would start to think about the parade, I said to myself ‘You know, we could do this. We could do this safely and make it happen.’” A silver lining to this year’s format is that fewer volunteers are needed. In a typical year, O’Leary estimates she needs roughly 400 people to dress up, wear costumes and push floats. This year, with social distancing a high priority, far fewer will be needed. While O’Leary said there won’t be as many characters to interact with children and fans of the parade, the floats have always been the main attraction, and those will be on hand for all to see. “The floats lit up are the magical part,” she said. “If we can get the floats lit up and have people be able to stay in their cars — it keeps them contained to their family units and safe — we can do this.” O’Leary spoke with the parade committee, city officials, the CAPD and all agreed that with COVID guidelines followed, the parade could be a go. She’s asking volunteers to maintain social distancing as well.
“If there’s characters on a float, stay with your family or your friend group. I don’t want to mix people, I want them in their own areas. Obviously we are going to be out there for at least several hours, so we’ll find some way to rotate people in to keep them warm, but it’s important for people to stay away from each other, social distance, wear a mask and be safe.”
Another important feature of the parade will be raffle tickets. O’Leary said that while the labor and hours from volunteers are donated, the costumes, materials for the float and supplies are not. Local businesses support the parade by donating raffle prizes, advertising and selling raffle tickets, and these tickets help fund the magic of the parade.
“That’s what pays for the parade. That’s how we fund the parade to get costumes and stuff for the float and supplies,” she said. “All the labor is donated, but we still need supplies and lumber and the lights and material. So those are the things that pay for everything so we can keep doing this.”
This year’s grand prize will be $1,500 in cash. Other prizes include a Daniel Boone Grill, donated by Maurina-Schilling Funeral Home and Smith Bros. Meats; a Yeti cooler and $1,000 worth of meat donated by Nicolet Bank; a $500 Visa gift card, donated by Forward Bank; a $500 Mastercard, donated by Abby Bank; a Ride-On Jeep, donated by Colby Chrysler; metal art from Combat Parts and TP Printing; a New Holland corn hole game, donated by Cherokee Garage; a pet wellness package, donated by Medford Vet Clinic; a $200 Visa gift card, donated by Royal Credit Union; a $200 gas card, donated by Central WI Plumbing and Christensen Farms Trucking; $100 in Abby/Colby Chamber Dollars, donated by Century 21; a $100 pizza party, donated by Pizza Hut; and two stuffed animals, donated by First City Dental.
Raffle tickets will be made available the night of the parade, and collected at the end of the parade, which will exit onto Linden Street. Tickets are now available at area businesses, and at the Abby/ Colby Crossings Chamber of Commerce.
O’Leary is also hoping to include a food drive, with canned food and nonperishable items to be placed in a sleigh and donated afterwards to local food pantries.
She’s hoping for a good, safe turnout and that visitors can enjoy giving a fun night of holiday cheer. While many of the floats and costumes are familiar, she expects this year’s format to make for an especially memorable parade.
“We’ve never done an event like this before, so if there’s some hiccups, we’ll just roll with it.”
Rapunzel! Let down your hair!
When you’ve been running a parade for so long, you need to add a few new surprises and additions to bring people back for more. Over the years those additions have grown to over 40 floats, and you can now add one more to that total.
Kris O’Leary, her five children, and her husband, Kevin Flink, have spent many late nights over the course of many, many weekends constructing, painting and creating Rapunzel’s Tower, a float inspired after the popular story.
“We started talking about Rapunzel probably a year ago, and then gave up on the idea that we were doing anything,” O’Leary said. “Then this time of year comes around, and we said ‘Hey, we can do this. We can pull together a new float.’” Kris had an idea of what the tower might look like and what she would need to get it started.
“I had an idea what it could look like and my husband wanted to put a boat over a four wheeler to pull it, and I was driving by and saw a boat,” she said. “Then we needed a cylinder type thing for a castle, and I had the vision of a wirespool and that we could build it off that. So, that’s how it started, a boat and a wire spool.”
For Kris, the chance to show something new is part of the charm of the parade and a reason people come back year after year.
“I think for the public it is exciting to see something new, and I think for us, personally, it’s a lot of work but it’s very fulfilling when it gets done. We start seeing it come together and it keeps you motivated . . .when it starts looking pretty and coming together then it becomes hard to stop.”
Kris isn’t done with the surprises just yet. If she has time, she is hoping to roll out another float.
“I have a bonus boat, so there might be another float out there. In my brain I have another float that I’m going to throw together in the next week.”
While the tower won’t be guided through the streets of Abbotsford, Kris hopes that visitors will enjoy the new addition, just as they’ve enjoyed the parade for all these years.
“There are a few people that are disappointed we’re not doing the traditional parade, and who have been in it forever who can’t do it this year. I told them to go enjoy it and for those people who have done it for years, hopefully they can enjoy it this year and come back and volunteer next year.”