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For a quarter-century, the only real complaint about the East Lyme Light Parade was that it didn't last long enough. As a holiday and community celebration, the evening event was so popular and successful that revelers were reluctant to leave when it was over.
Then, two years ago, the city of East Lyme incorporated a day-side counterpart to the proceedings. Winterfest debuted in 2011 and added all sorts of seasonal activities - ranging from an ice sculptor and balloon artist to food trucks and a chili/chowder cookoff.
But despite the double-the-greatness factor, one more innovative change has taken place. This year, Winterfest and the Light Parade will take place on Saturday instead of the typical Sunday time slot.
"Because it's been such a Sunday tradition, there was a bit of resistance to the Saturday move," says Mike McDowell, special events coordinator for the East Lyme Department of Parks and Recreation. "But a lot of folks, from politicians to the Light Parade committee members, thought the move was the right thing to do. We're hoping by staging the events on Saturday, we can attract more people who will stay in the downtown area longer and later - and not have to worry about getting up for school or work the next day."
Winterfest starts at 2 p.m. on Main Street with a 30-by-90-foot heated stage hosting the cookoff. Several businesses will be churning out chowder and/or chili in hopes of earning the trophy won last year by the Main Street Grille.
This year's fest also boasts a magician, face-painting, and a puppet theater. And, yes, pictures with Santa and horse-drawn carriage rides are definitely on tap.
"Winterfest started as a family-focused component so that people could make an entire day and night out of what had been just the light parade," McDowell says. "And it worked. The real fun is seeing all the families out for the afternoon activities and then getting excited about the parade and fireworks."
At 6:30 p.m., the pyrotechnics will signal the start of the parade proper, with floats, dance groups and St. Nick himself starting to roll thereafter. McDowell says indications are that sponsors, mindful of the 25th anniversary of the event, are planning bigger and better floats.
"Yeah, because it's the 25th year, we are expecting some pretty special floats," he says. "Pro-Tech Auto is back for the first time in a few years, and they always do a tremendous job. There's a lot of anticipation and excitement across the board, and we think it'll be a pretty great parade."
As always, the shops and restaurants of the village will be open with all sorts of specials, bargains and holiday atmosphere.
McDowell says, "The parade committee's been meeting weekly for months now, and we've taken a lot of requests from the community and businesses on how to make it all even better and more memorable. We're ready."
East Lyme Light Parade & Winterfest, Saturday, Main Street, Niantic; Winterfest starts at 2 p.m., with the light parade at 6:30; free; (860) 514-7170, ellightparade.com.