Organizing more than 7,000 participants, a variety of animals and countless motorized vehicles into a smooth-moving parade requires months of planning, near military precision and a serious amount of luck.
Organizers of the Ocala/Marion County Christmas Parade say that although the annual event has seen lots of successful outings, they’ve also run into a few snags over the years.
History shows that the squeals of excitement from the thousands of children lining the route of the parade increase in intensity as the final float rounds the corner of Northeast 25th Avenue and turns west on Silver Springs Boulevard each year. “Look, it’s Santa Claus,” ripples in echoing layers all the way to Northeast Eighth Avenue as the Jolly Old Elf waves and calls out “Ho, ho, ho.”
As the procession turns right and disperses at Tuscawilla Park, those behind the scenes begin to breathe a sigh of relief.
This year’s Ocala/Marion County Christmas Parade will get rolling at 5:30pm on December 14th. Here’s a look at what it takes to create a cohesive presentation each year.
Friends, in Deed
A committee of volunteers puts on the parade. The event has been organized under the auspices of the Downtown Merchants Association, the Jaycees, the Ocala/Marion County Chamber of Commerce and the nonprofit Friends of the Christmas Parade.
“The original committee had more than 35 people on it. It has dwindled to about six of the original 35 and we have a committee of about 15 now,” notes longtime chairwoman Sue Mosley. “It’s getting harder and harder to keep people on the committee, just like with any other civic organization. People don’t have the time to volunteer like they used to.
“I’m on 25 years. William Taylor is on 28 years. Tamara Fleischhaker is about 15 years. Gary Smith, the band coordinator, has 30-plus years,” Mosley explains. “We all have our chores, we are a well-oiled group and we bring it all together.”
Big, and Getting Bigger
The parade has attracted more than 60,000 attendees each of the past three years, according to Mosley.
“If you look at the USA Today top 10 holiday events, number one is the Macy’s parade, number two is the Rose Bowl, number three is the Gatlinburg, Tennessee Christmas parade and then four, five, six, seven, eight are all little town Christmas parades, so as far as number three through 10 we’re up there,” Mosley offers.
ROTC groups now outsize the historically large band groups, Mosley says. The ROTC units from each area high school each have about 400 or 500 students. The middle and high school bands number nearly 3,000 students. “We are at about 7,000 parade participants now,” she notes.
Logistics, Law and Order
On the day of the parade, more than 100 sworn members of the Ocala Police Department (OPD), at the rank of lieutenant and above, participate in the parade. According to Chief Greg Graham, the patrol shift for the night polices the road and answers calls for service. All other members work in a variety of assignments.
“We have officers working crowd control and safety, as well as officers who are in charge of the safety and security of participants during the parade as well as hours of staging before and after,” he explains. “Our traffic unit blocks roads and maintains the flow of traffic during detours.”
Graham notes that a member of the SWAT team drives the armored MRAP vehicle during the parade and Sgt. Eric Hooper and friends drive Hooper’s authentically restored fleet of vintage police cars.
“Operations plans are started and worked on well in advance each year and the agency puts a lot of time and effort into assigning appropriate officers to each post in order to ensure the safety and fun of each parade spectator and participant,” Graham notes. “OPD also receives a lot of support from nearby partners, such as the Marion County Sheriff’s Office, Belleview Police Department, and Williston Police Department. Without them, we could not operate as efficiently during the parade and we appreciate their continued generosity.”
Another function for OPD personnel is making sure Santa Claus makes it to the parade grounds.
“The police department, although not in charge of his transport, ensures the safety and security of Santa during his visit to Ocala,” Graham remarks. “We are dedicated to maintaining the secrecy of his travel plans so his magic is not spoiled. It’s not often easy to pull Santa away from his workshop ahead of time, so we are very lucky he sacrifices time to visit us for the parade.”
Oh Yes, the Snags…
“I had no idea what I was doing,” Mosley recalls of her first year on the parade committee. “The chairman said, ‘Stay with me in the front and I’ll teach you how to start the parade.’”
She said the first big unit out of the staging area was a semi pulling a float. It turned the corner from Northeast 25th Avenue to the boulevard and broke down at the corner, blocking everything behind it.
“There was no way to go around it anywhere,” she says. “We used to have wreckers that would stage at two areas of the parade so they could get somebody in and out, but this year—and it was probably my job—we forgot to order wreckers. So, I panic and tell the driver of the truck he has to go. He says he needs a brake line and a wrench and can get it fixed. I spent maybe 10 or 15 minutes running up and down to float drivers asking for a brake line and a wrench until, finally, the commander of the parade, Greg Graham, comes flying up and says I have to get that semi moved and to call a wrecker. I said no, he just needs a brake line and a wrench. And Graham just looks at me and then calls for a wrecker. Needless to say, the parade was stopped for a while, and we frown on stopping because we air live on TV. If there’s a huge gap, people think it’s over. So I learned a good lesson my first year.”
She says that several years later, a semi carrying a group of kindergarteners, which was about three floats in front of Santa Claus, broke down before it got to the boulevard. She recalled seeing another semi parked on the parade route earlier in the day and scoured the crowd until she found the owner, who turned out to be her friend Jerry Arthur.
“So we moved the crowd. His son-in-law drove the semi around Fort King to get to the staging area and the police were so good they wouldn’t let him in,” she recalls. “So we finally get the truck in there, he hooks up the Dr. N.H. Jones kids, they go flying down the boulevard and he didn’t hook up the brake line. So they went down the boulevard—30 kindergartners and their parents—with no brakes and, thank God, nobody got hurt. We laugh about that to this day, but we got it done and Santa got on the boulevard in a timely manner. That’s all that matters, that we get Santa out there.”
She also remembers a mustang getting loose one year from the animal staging area and bolting into the big field next to the McPherson Governmental Complex.
“It was like watching it in slow motion, with 6,000 kids in that field and a horse took off and nobody could do anything,” she says with a shiver. “Everybody got silent just watching. There was absolutely nothing you could do. And it was, again, by the hands of God that nobody got hurt. That horse just stopped and the owner was able to walk up to it and get it.”
She said one unnerving instance involved a man allowing a 3-year-old child to drive a four-wheeler, which came out from a neighborhood, into the crowd and hurt several people.
“And that was right at the time we were about to step off,” she remembers. “That was the only time in all my years the parade was ever started late, because we had to get an ambulance on the boulevard.”
Then, There’s the Weather
The attendance went down to about 35,000 viewers in 2013, when it rained—sort of—on the parade.
“Phyllis Hamm, who was our longtime executive director, and ‘Parade Queen,’ used to say, ‘It never rains on my parade,’” Mosley notes. “In 2013, the year before she passed away, it rained during the day. But it stopped at exactly 5:30pm, when I stepped off that parade, and later, when the police escort pulled Santa off the route at 7:30pm, it started to rain again.”
Some parades have been marked by freezing cold, but many have taken place on sunny days with high temperatures. One extreme or the other can be a challenge. For example, marchers who might be wearing costumes not warm enough for low temps, or characters inside mascot-type costumes who are dripping in sweat.
Dollars, as Well as Sense
The parade is funded, in part, by sales of bleacher seats at the Staples and Save A Lot shopping centers. That area is where the judge’s reviewing stand is positioned, along with the crew that does the live television production. That team uses the Marion County Public Schools channel and also posts it on YouTube.
“The Friends of the Christmas Parade usually go through about $50,000 and the city puts in about $50,000,” Mosley says of the financial commitment each year. “OPD, with overtime for that day, is in it for about $40,000. It’s $100 per unit for entries and we get sponsorships when we can. Vendors pay a commission.”
Mosley says many of the businesses along the route do a booming business on parade day. There have been past complaints about people wanting to use restrooms, but not patronizing the businesses, however, so this year they will have portable toilets at each intersection.
Three, as in Musketeers
Mosley says the dedicated overall committee ramps up their work each August. She says she and co-chairs William Taylor and Tamara Fleischhaker are involved with clerical work all year long, such as working with the insurance and keeping up the 501(c)(3) status.
“Come November, Tamara, William and I will put, easily, 30 hours a week into this,” she says.
“It’s just, when you see how excited little kids get…waiting for Santa. And then law enforcement goes by. Then the fire trucks. They love that! People complain the sirens are too loud, but you never have a 6-year-old complain.”
Fleischhaker, with the Ocala/Marion County Chamber and Economic Partnership, says Hamm got her involved in the parade many years ago and that she has since had many varied roles. She says committee members don’t have titles, they just split up the duties and everyone helps everyone else.
“I love it,” she says of her longtime involvement.
Taylor, with Combined Insurance, says his father Bob was very involved in the chamber and was a parade chairman. He said that even during times of duress, his father would stand behind the parade committee and support their decisions.
“Since then, the Friends of the Christmas Parade has taken over ownership of the parade from the chamber, which is now the CEP, and my involvement has continued each year for 20-something years,” Taylor notes. “It’s a year-long effort for one day that seems to upset half of Ocala. But, at the end of the day, when it’s over, it’s amazing to see all of the families walking to their cars and they had a good time. It’s a bonding thing for families.”
And Now, a History Lesson
There are some references to the parade beginning in the 1930s, but little actual data is available. The family of Ocala City Councilman Brent Malever has deep roots in the community. According to Malever and Mosley, Brent’s brother Stanley, who died in December 2017, was the first official parade chairman, in 1955.
“Stanley started the parade,” Malever says. “I was in college, at Florida Southern, and would come up and help. After I graduated in 1961, I helped even more.
“We had a clothing store downtown and he put in an extra telephone line so he could keep up with the parade stuff,” Malever notes. “I remember in the late ‘50s, he had 110 to 120 units. He had ROTC units from the University of Florida, Stetson and Florida Southern.”
Malever also recalls one very special horse being in the parade. “Needles, who won the Kentucky Derby, they had him on a trailer,” he explains. “Needles himself was in the parade.”
Malever said the Jaycees started a Sheriff’s Posse, whose members were deputized and could carry firearms, and that they would ride motorcycles and help line up the parade. The posse also participated in the parade, doing figure eights and more. “We were invited all over the state and in Georgia to be in parades,” he recalls. “Stanley ran himself crazy getting everything together for the parade. He had help, don’t get me wrong, but he worked it hard and loved it. Both of us, we love Ocala,” he adds. “That’s who we are.”
Elka Malever, Stanley’s widow, recalled the early days of their marriage and his involvement with the parade. “He was in charge,” she notes. “He was out every night with planning, and then some.”
She said he was very honored when he was named Man of the Year by the Jaycees, based in part on his activities with the parade but also as a businessman and community advocate. She said they and their children were attendees at many parades over the years and “everybody looked forward to it.”
“The greatest memories for me are made of the smiling faces each year, whether they be big or small,” Chief Graham says of the parade. “Christmas lights and a spectacular show may provide light on those faces, but it is the smiles that light up the night for me. We are participating in something where families are able to be together with the rest of their community and enjoy something as one. Something that seems so simple, yet is so magical, becomes a lasting holiday tradition for many.”
To learn more, visit www.ocalachristmasparade.com and find the Friends of the Christmas Parade on Facebook.