Five hours before the grand parade was to begin Saturday, chairs lined Cortez Boulevard in Fort Myers. Green ones, blue, red, yellow, striped, wooden, canvas, purple, paisley, pink.
Still more chairs stretch around the corner and all along Cleveland Avenue, running north to downtown, 3/4 mile away.
Residents were gearing up Saturday afternoon for a tradition that has been integral to Fort Myers since before World War II — the nighttime Edison Festival of Light Grand Parade.
“I come for the tradition,” said Joseph Blais, 30, as he prepared to barbecue sausage and bratwurst for about 15-20 family members and friends on Cleveland Avenue, the main artery of the parade route.
Blais marched in the parade as a Boy Scout and a member of his high school band. He’s been to almost every parade in his lifetime, as participant or observer.
Mike Gill has Blais beat by a couple of decades.
As Blais prepared to light his barbecue, Gill was a quarter of a mile away at Fort Myers High School, the staging ground for the event and the parade’s starting point.
“There’s a lot of tradition involved, and we’re trying to keep it alive and well,” said Gill, who has been parade chairman for more than four decades and marched in it as a Cub Scout in 1959.
He said the parade has more competition than it did in the days before cell phones and the internet, but people still love it.
“Where else can you sit in your folding chairs for two hours at no cost and enjoy the spectacle,” he said. “People still hang from the rafters downtown.”
Downtown, people were lodged in their seats hours ahead of time, playing cards and bean bag toss, eating, chatting with old friends, reading, knitting, even napping.
For Boy Scout Troop 761, the parade is a chance to work on merit badges and earn money towards the troop’s annual summer camping trip.
They bought 350 special chairs for $4.75 each on Edwards Drive near the parade’s terminus and sell them for $10 a piece.
The scouts place name tags on the seats, usher people to their proper locations “and they all enjoy watching the parade,” says Gene McMullen, the troop’s committee chairman.
Organizers were expecting as many as 200,000 people to attend the parade, particularly with pleasant temperatures and little chance of rain in the forecast.
The Edison Festival of Light, a month-long pageant of which the parade is the highlight, was launched in the late 1930s to honor the man who once was the City of Palms’ most famous part-time resident: Thomas Edison.
The inventor spent winters in a house he built on the Caloosahatchee River in 1886 until his death in 1931. The festival of light commemorates Edison’s creation of the commercial, incandescent light bulb, which altered forever the way Americans illuminated their homes.
The 2020 parade was to feature more than 140 entries, including a Mexican dance troupe, brightly lit bicycles, an acrobatic police motorcycle squad from Indianapolis, horses, marching bands, and floats.
The city calls the two-hour procession from the high school to downtown the largest night parade in the Southeast United States.
The celebration featured a flyover of drones, helicopters and other aircraft preceded the parade. Concerts, craft shows, a 5K race, special food events and a classic car show kept residents awash in the festival glow.
Fireworks were to light the sky after the parade.
Debby Dukes belongs to a group of five local families that have had a float in the parade for almost three decades.
The theme of the family float varies annually. This year they created a hippie wagon, psychedelically colored with kids dressed as hippies and the words, “Peace and Love in Edisonia,” spread across it.
“We like to support Fort Myers and community activities,” said Dukes. “And it’s fun for the kids. It’s all about the kids.”
Gill says the parade has lost the participation and financial support of major retailers such as Sears and J.C. Penny over the years. Such companies find it more profitable to promote themselves on the internet than in a parade, he said.
Now smaller businesses are entering floats “and it still works,” he says.
“The parade is smaller,” he says, “but the quality is still as good as ever.”
Classic Car Show: The streets line with hundreds of hot rods and classic cars. Plus food and drinks will be sold. 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Free. Edwards Drive in downtown Fort Myers.
Cracker Dinner: This annual buffet dinner includes door prizes, live music, a silent auction and storytellers Jennifer Stacey and Greg Parker of ABC-7, who will talk about little-known facts from Lee County’s early days. Ticket sales ended Friday.
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