Floats the centerpiece of Fort Worth's Parade of Lights

FORT WORTH -- There is a time each year when some groups that submitted float entries for the Chesapeake Energy Parade of Lights enter panic mode.

Frantic phone calls are placed to parade officials from people asking where they should get lights, or for a translation of a rule. Some entrants even drop out.

Building a 5- to 25-foot float illuminated by 800 to 4,000 lights -- and one that will be on display during Tarrant County's premier holiday event, attended by thousands -- can be an intimidating proposition.

So far, the members of the Texas Girls' Choir and their parents have kept their cool.

"It is a little crazy, but we've been talking about this, planning and sketching out our ideas for months," said Joanna Minter, chairwoman of the float project for the choir, a Fort Worth organization that is building a Christmas-themed float with 6,000 lights. "You never forget that a lot of people are going to be watching."

The choir is one of 106 entries in the parade, which will illuminate downtown Friday night with more than 500,000 lights. The theme of this year's event is "The Wonder of it All!"

'A pretty big deal'

The parade has come a long way since it started three decades ago. Developed as a way to help Fort Worth celebrate family and togetherness in a spirited way, early participants recall a small, much more casual affair.

That first year, parade organizers called the Fort Worth Model A Ford Club, invited them to bring their cars and told them to decorate them only if they felt like it, said Randy Minton, a member of the club, which has built a float each year.

Since then, the car club members have created a pirate ship, a giant bed carrying kids wearing pajamas and, after the 9-11 attacks, two American flags using red, white and blue lights. This year, club members will illuminate 18 cars with 1,500 lights, and that doesn't count thousands more lights on a few trailers.

"Now it's evolved into a pretty big deal," Minton said. "A lot more work goes into it."

Professional decorators are making about 10 floats this year, including specially designed entries from Chesapeake Energy, Chase Bank and XTO Energy. For the finale, a new float sponsored by Downtown Fort Worth Initiatives Inc. will carry Santa and Mrs. Claus.

But floats built by local groups and organizations often turn out equally impressive, said Jay Downie, parade producer.

"They're very personal and have a lot of community time and energy invested in them," Downie said. "That's what makes this parade special."

'A lot of manpower'

It didn't feel much like the holidays when parents of Texas Girls' Choir members started sketching ideas for the float in the heat of June. They assigned roles such as volunteer coordinator, construction coordinator, lighting coordinator and a sound coordinator.

They even have hospitality coordinator because the girls need to eat.

"It takes a lot of manpower, a lot of planning, a lot of details," Minter said.

Starting from scratch with an empty trailer can feel overwhelming. SPJST, a Czech fraternal organization, started planning right after the Fourth of July, choosing a Texas farm theme for one of its floats and a "polar bear in Christmas paradise" theme for another.

That meant tracking down an 8-foot inflatable polar bear, building a tractor from wood and cardboard with a seat that will support a child, cutting cardboard cows with black spots, pigs, pink flamingos and palm trees.

SPJST members were inspired to make a rooster when someone spotted an infant's rooster Halloween costume on a sales rack, said Melanie Zavodny, an SPJST member. They stuffed it and perched it atop the tractor.

"You might have to cut the shapes a few times before you get them to look like a flamingo," Zavodny said. "Then you have to get right color fabric to wrap around it and keep shaping it until you have the animal you want. Sometimes you use a lot prayers trying to make it turn out just right."

The Texas Girls' Choir chose a theme highlighting everything girls love about Christmas: hot cocoa, ornaments on trees, gifts, candy canes, bows and lollypops.

For the cup of cocoa, they turned a 5-gallon bucket into a Christmas mug and attached a wooden handle. Dry ice or a fog machine would add the illusion that steam was rising from the cup.

It's all about the lights

But the most important thing is always the lights. Parade requirements are posted online and organizers cannot stress enough the importance of meeting them. A committee checks the floats in the staging area and, in the past, have occasionally broken the news to their builders that they couldn't participate.

"But it is, after all, a parade of lights," Downie said. "Without them, it would be a disappointing experience for the audience."

Girls' Choir members have accumulated about 6,000 lights, Minter said.

Groups say it is hard to estimate how much the decorations cost. Many of the material used for the Girls' Choir float, for example, were donated. Minton said club members spend about $150, but he has found a way to make sure he gets his money's worth out of the lights.

"I put the lights on my car and go do the parade," he said. "Then I come home Saturday, take them off and put them up on the house."

Alex Branch, 817-390-7689

Twitter: @albranch1

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