For many years, the Christmas Parade of Lights was organized and run by the Lions Club of Santa Maria. During the first years, the parade ran south on Broadway, from Fesler to Boone streets. Surprisingly, traffic was allowed to continue on Broadway, using the western lane, and the parade ran down the east side of the street!
In 1994, the parade did not happen at all. Disappointed in the loss of this annual holiday tradition, some local Rotarians in the Santa Maria Breakfast Rotary Club decided to take on the project of resurrecting the parade and making it bigger and better than ever. They were assisted with the early financial support of the BSanta Maria Times.C
It was decided to make this a real community event, by asking participants and viewers alike to bring non-perishable food to the parade to be donated for the benefit of the Salvation Army.
As a result, this effort has grown into the largest canned food drive of its kind on the Central Coast. Last year, almost 3 tons of canned goods were collected for use in the summer months to follow. Because of the charitable focus of the parade, the theme over the years has been "The Joy of Giving."
One of the first things organizers did when the parade was revived in 1995 was to change the direction of the parade and start at the Santa Maria Inn and go north, finishing at the Town Center.
Rotarian organizers secured permission from the city and Caltrans to completely close Broadway during the parade. This allowed viewers to comfortably see the parade from both sides of the street, and provided for greater safety to the participants. Parade organizers also stationed announcers, in English and Spanish, along the parade route.
Realizing this effort was much too big for one Rotary Club, the second year (1996) saw the combination of all three Santa Maria Rotary Clubs (Breakfast, Noon and South), as well as the Rotary Club of Nipomo, come together to organize and run the event. It has been a joint effort ever since.
In 1997, organizers purchased figurines from the proceeds of the sponsorship, and with help from the city, placed them along the median in front of the mall. In 2001, local television station KCOY/KKFX began broadcasting the parade live.
In 2003, due to the large crowds that were turning out for the event 8 estimated now at some 30,000 people, the parade route was extended starting at Stowell and Broadway.
For the first time in 2004, new holiday banners were hung on Broadway. These banners were the result of donations from the local Rotary Clubs and the Santa Maria Valley Chamber of Commerce.
In 2006, the parade had over 2,500 participants. Approximately 100 local Rotarians, along with almost 250 community volunteers participated.
Planning for the parade begins each year in August. As a new feature of the 2006 parade, a California Highway Patrol (CHP) helicopter flew over the route to signal the parade?s start. The CHP helicopter is scheduled to fly over the parade route again this year.
Rotary is constantly looking for ways to improve the parade. This year, a new feature of the parade experience will be the Rotary Winter Wonderland, which will be located at the Town Center.
The Winter Wonderland will encompass an area approximately 40 feet by 40 feet and offer kids up to 8 years old a chance to frolic in a winter snowy environment while enjoying the parade.