Tempe’s annual holiday kickoff has served as a consistent source of entertainment and joy for families for two decades without necessarily offering the same experience one year after another.
Like in previous years, the Fantasy of Lights Holiday Opening Night Parade presented by Wells Fargo, now in its 20th year, will feature a series of attractions for viewers who line up along downtown Tempe. The route takes participants down Mill Avenue beginning at Third Street before turning along Seventh Street to end at Centerpoint Plaza.
There are always a few constants from one year to the next with the parade, including the 40 to 50 parade units that encompass floats, balloons, vehicles and other celebratory devices. A few annual staples include real estate developer Michael Pollack’s lighted train, an appearance by Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, and Marcia’s Mop Parade marching down Mill Avenue. It’ll end as it tends to end with the lighting of Tempe’s sizable holiday tree at Centerpoint Plaza and an appearance by the season’s most valuable spirit of charity, Santa Claus.
All in all, it creates a feel that Kate Hastings, the parade’s managing director, equated to the traditional hometown parade for parents to bring their kids for the evening.
“At this point, there are people who grew up with this parade … and they’re now bringing their children,” she said.
And yet, things aren’t quite the same as they are from one year to the next. A few changes are minor in nature, with Hastings saying Arpaio is leaving his usual tank at home and trading it in for a convertible to drive that night. There are also a few new participants set to march through downtown Tempe, highlighted by the Girl Scout Daisies and new high school bands that will showcase their talents downtown.
As Hastings put it, people like tradition, but they also like a little bit of change to go with it as well.
“It’s never a repeat of last year because the components are always changing,” she said.
The parade marks the launch of a series of holiday celebrations that hit Tempe. Other options include the Tempe Festival of the Arts that coincides with the parade, the Fantasy of Lights Boat Parade that takes place the weekend after the Fantasy of Lights, and the Circle K New Year’s Eve Block Party on Mill Avenue that rings in the eponymous event.
Hastings said the Tempe Festival of the Arts has run for approximately 46 years and has served as a staple for the downtown arts community during that stretch. It’s an opportunity to showcase the talents of artists in 16 visual mediums ranging from woodworking and painting to drawing, photos and ceramics, and it includes a chalk art competition on Nov. 30.
The festival serves as an outlet for people to pick up a few holiday gifts at the start of the shopping season and doubles as a showcase for artists from across the East Valley and even from Mexico and Canada.
“Artists want to come here, and who wouldn’t?” she said.
By contrast, the Fantasy of Lights Boat Parade is the newest of the holiday festivities and serves as a logical tagalong to the Fantasy of Lights Parade. The boat festival has vessels from all over the area cruise along Tempe Town Lake covered in holiday lights and with their own stories to tell. It concludes with the arrival of Santa Claus on a police boat and with a firework display.
“Not everyone can boast a boat parade, but Tempe can,” Hastings said.
Mayor Mark Mitchell said in an email that this time of year is special for Tempe, as he said families populate the downtown area in sizable numbers to enjoy the events on tap and create a few memories in the process.
“There’s no other community in the Valley like Tempe that does as many special events of the size as Tempe … there’s always something going on in downtown,” Hastings said.
The Fantasy of Lights Parade is free for the public and begins at 6 p.m. Nov. 29, while the boat parade starts at 5 p.m. Dec. 13. More information about the events is available by visitingdowntowntempe.com/explore/annual-events/fantasy-of-lights.
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