Palm Springs Lights Up the Holidays With Annual Parade

Parade has grown from its humble beginnings of 33 entries and one-hour duration

Marcia Gawecki Attractions, Watch & Listen - Attractions 0 Comments

Will Kleindienst looks over a scrapbook of photos from some of the early years of the Palm Springs Festival of Lights Parade.


When the 23rd Annual Festival of Lights Parade lights up Palm Canyon drive Saturday evening with a million white lights on floats, oversized balloons, marching bands, firetrucks, prancing horses and more, it’s hard to image that it all began with a handful of organizers, 33 entries, and lasted only an hour.

Founder and former Palm Springs Mayor William G. Kleindienst said in 1993, there was no precedence to follow or example to copy, unless you compare it to the Main Street Electrical Parade at Disneyland.

The idea of creating a holiday parade was introduced by the executive director of the Palm Springs Chamber of Commerce. Kleindienst, an architect, wasn’t mayor then, but had developed a solid reputation as a float designer for the local high school. His first one was a pink Cadillac that he had created for a family friend. Subsequent floats became more grand and ornate, including King Kong in the jungle and a dragon-knight-and-castle motif.

“Everyone wanted a parade because nothing happens in December between Thanksgiving and Christmas, ” says Kleindienst. “A parade was a grand idea to general community pride, while bringing in tourists to the area, especially for the hotels/motels, restaurants and shops.”


Photo courtesy of the Festival of Lights parade
Since its inception in 1993, the Palm Springs Festival of Lights parade has tripled in attendance.


Yet, Kleindienst and friends Jerry Ogburn and Ralph Raya encountered strong resistance from the local merchants, who didn’t want an all-day streets closure. “They couldn’t see that a community parade would bring in new revenue,” Kleindienst says.

“Well, if they don’t want to close the streets, then we’ll do it at night,” he added. “If Disneyland can do it, then why can’t we?”

Even though the 13 organizers weren’t special events experts, they forged ahead, gathering those who knew and wanted to help, and everything just fell into place. Categories included: floats, choir, walkers, auto and equestrian. Buddy Rogers was Grand Marshall. There was no restrictions on the entries, only that everything had to be lit with white lights and none of the floats could showcase Santa Claus.

“There was only one Santa, and he was always at the end of the parade  — our grand finale,” Kleindienst says.


Drawing courtesy of William Kleindiens
Here is a drawing of the logo for the inaugural Festival of Lights Parade in 1993.


It was natural for floats and cars to be lit with white lights, but not so much people and horses. Marching bands and dance troupes had to rig up lights on their hats, helmets, shirts and skirts, while wearing a backpack with a battery inside.

“LED lights have made it easier now, but back then, some of the floats had generators the size of refrigerators,” Kleindienst laughs.

In spite of being chairman of the parade, Kleindienst managed to find time to design a “Santa’s Express” float for his wife’s escrow company. “We had reindeer that were reaching toward the sky,” Kleindienst recalls. “It only became a problem at the dip at Baristo.”

The Festival of Lights event was promoted on radio, TV programs and in the newspapers, but still was an unknown quantity. “People kept asking us, ‘The what parade?’” he says.


Photo courtesy of the Festival of Lights parade
The parade route has been extended as the crowds have grown bigger.


And when the fateful evening arrived after just a few short months of planning, the parade committee had no idea of the numbers, or if anyone, would show up. “We were pre-staged at Ramon, and we could see a solid line of car lights headed toward us,” Kleindienst recalls. “It gave us goosebumps.”

Now, the Festival of Lights Parade has grown much bigger and better. And when attendees started getting 20 deep, they extended the parade route. Grand things have been added, such as the oversized, Macy’s-like balloons in the shape of reindeer and ornaments.

More than 100,000 people are expected to line Palm Canyon Drive this year, says Amy Blaisdell from the City of Palm Springs. Every year except for one, Kleindienst has attended the parade with his wife and mother-in-law, taking pride in knowing that he helped establish a longstanding community tradition.

“It’s now considered a ‘weekend event,’” he says. “People are staying over in hotels and motels, dining in restaurants and doing their holiday shopping.”

Palm Springs festival of Lights Parade, 5:45 p.m. Dec. 5, runs down Palm Canyon Drive starting at East Tacheva Drive and ending at Ramon Road;


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