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    Tuesday, March 05, 2024

    ‘Go big or go home’: Longtime Niantic Light Parade participant looks to top himself ― again

    John Wilson, owner of Sign Craft, top center, his wife, Julie, left, and friends work on their Barbie-themed float Friday, Dec. 8, 2023, in preparation for the Niantic Light Parade on Saturday. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    Julie Wilson, wife of Sign Craft owner John Wilson, shows the Barbies on Friday, Dec. 8, 2023, that will decorate their Barbie-themed float for the Niantic Light Parade on Saturday. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    John Wilson, owner of Sign Craft, prepares to put a light on top of the tail of Barbie’s plane Friday, Dec. 8, 2023, while finishing decorating his family’s Barbie themed float for the Niantic Light Parade on Saturday. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    Julie Wilson, wife of Sign Craft owner John Wilson, shows Barbie’s car Friday, Dec. 8, 2023, that will be driven by their daughter Jillian in front of their Barbie-themed float during the Niantic Light Parade on Saturday. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    Members of Colchester Fire & EMS, family and friends, work together Saturday, Dec. 9, 2023, to decorate the fire truck while on Columbus Avenue near St. Agnes Church before the Niantic Light Parade on Main Street. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    Lawn chairs and vehicles line Main Street at St. John’s Green Saturday, Dec. 9, 2023, hours before the Niantic Light Parade. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    East Lyme – The Black Point Road driveway of the Sign Craft company served as an airport runway of sorts Friday night as owner John Wilson continued his quest to outdo himself ahead of the town’s annual holiday parade.

    Less than 24 hours before the Niantic Light Parade stepped off at 6 p.m. Saturday, Wilson stood tinkering with a massive light-strung replica airplane boasting a hot pink exterior and the silhouette of a pony-tailed Barbie.

    As Wilson crawled underneath the plane’s superstructure ― he's not fond of the term “float” ― to show off a corrugated plastic and wood interior attached to a company truck, he pointed to a long boom-and-bucket assembly that would allow the model to bob up and down as it travels the parade route.

    Wilson, one of dozens of parade participants who aimed to wow the tens of thousands of parade viewers set to pack Main Street, said he’s in many ways a victim of his own success.

    Wilson has taken part in the popular parade every year since it began 35 years ago and walked away as the winner in the commercial float category more than 20 times since.

    “How could I go smaller?” he asked, sporting an elf hat and a wide grin. “Go big or go home.”

    As the hours ticked down Saturday afternoon to the parade’s start, the village of Niantic began dressing for the event.

    By 2 p.m., sidewalks lining Main Street were filled by hundreds of folding chairs and blankets laid out by early-bird parade viewers ensuring themselves prime viewing spots.

    Not far from the McCook Point Park float staging area, members of the Colchester Hayward Fire Department draped lines of decorative bulbs on a truck parked outside the Saint Agnes Church parking lot.

    On yards and in driveways across town, float builders put the finishing touches on their entries as Wilson fine-tuned his creation.

    “It just got more elaborate year after year”

    Wilson’s foray into the world of parades began humbly during the Niantic event’s inaugural effort. That year, he donned a furry winter jacket embellished with pine tree branches and colored lights.

    “I was the human Christmas tree,” he said. “It just got more elaborate year after year.”

    Subsequent entries were linked to current events, such as the curse-reversing 2004 year for the Boston Red Sox, or pop culture phenomena, like the “Frozen,” “Toy Story” and “The Wizard of Oz” movies.

    “It’s mayhem in the weeks as we’re getting ready,” said Wilson’s wife, Julie Wilson. “But this is really an offshoot of our business, which is all about being creative. And we get to give back to our community – there's nothing like seeing kid’s faces as Main Street lights up.”

    Wilson, who keeps a running mental list of future float ideas, said the plane entry grew out of the popularity of the “Barbie” movie released earlier this year.

    The float will feature oversized toy props associated with the character, synchronized music (“Barbie Girl” by Aqua, of course) and a lead car constructed from a go-cart and a twin bed tricked out to resemble Barbie’s iconic Corvette convertible.

    A family tradition open to all

    That pink vehicle will be driven by Wilson’s daughter, Jillian Wilson, who at age 27 has never known a Christmas unconnected to the parade.

    “This is my Christmas, and I don’t need anything else,” she said. “I start looking forward to this in July.”

    Jillian Wilson showed off a large closet stuffed floor-to-ceiling with boxes of holiday lights, a cache the family continues adding to once January rolls around and decoration prices plummet.

    “It’s my job to call around and find out when lights go on sale,” she said. “Everyone I know understands what this parade means to me. I was asked to go to a friend’s wedding on Saturday and as soon as I mentioned that’s the night of parade, my friend told me she wanted me at the parade instead.”

    John Wilson said getting a float parade-ready is a communal effort. In addition to the family members and longtime friends who stop by to swing a hammer or add a camouflage layer of plastic wrap around the truck, there are always a few new faces looking to lend a hand.

    “People we’ve never met will come by and ask what they can do,” John Wilson said. “And we’ll feed them and put them to work.”

    The float will tote a trailer emblazoned with the names of the entry’s sponsors, including the business groups whose donations help defray the cost of construction.

    This year’s float will carry a special set of guests, including four generations of Wilson girls: Julie Wilson and her 87-year-old mother, Phyllis Cushing, along with John and Julie’s daughter, Jenna Mulhill, and her 6-month-old, Annie.

    “My favorite part of all this is the last days of putting a float together,” Julie Wilson said. “I love seeing it being brought to life and knowing 30,000 people standing 30 deep on the (parade route) will see it.”

    j.penney@theday.com

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