The Lehigh Acres Spring Festival comes to an end this weekend with a gala parade down Homestead Rd. on Saturday and an afternoon of activities at Veterans Park. Thousands are expected to attend.
The festival has been an annual tradition in Lehigh for decades and it is always held around the third week of March. It began as a way to bid farewell to snowbirds in Lehigh who usually left to return to their northern homes.
Each year, two local people are honored in the parade. One is the grand marshal. This year it is Judy Stephenson, the widow of Danny Stephenson, "the voice of the Spring Festival" died last year. He had his wife had been active in the festival for years and this year's event has been dedicated in his honor.
The other person honored in the parade is the Pioneer Family. Someone is selected to ride in the parade, to represent a family that has lived in Lehigh for a long time.
This year's Pioneer Family representative is Martha Thrower, a longtime resident of Lehigh who came here when Lehigh was beginning to develop. She worked for the Lehigh Corp. and has been active in all sorts of events in the community over the years. She was selected by the Greater Lehigh Acres Chamber of Commerce. Its CEO and president, Inke Baker, said Thrower was a logical choice because of all the work, including many hours of volunteer work for organizations in Lehigh over the years.
"She is a great lady and this is a great way to honor her," Baker said.
Thrower will ride in the parade, perhaps in an open top convertible. The grand marshal, Judy Stephenson will lead the parade following the Lee County Sheriff's Office.
The parade begins in the area of Beth Stacey Blvd. and travels the mile-long trek toward Veterans Park. It disbands at around Arthur Ave. and during the remainder of Saturday, the public fills the park to enjoy all the events and activities, including midway rides and plenty of food and entertainment.
Andy Reisinger is chairman of the parade and he said the children especially enjoy the parade because of the candy that is passed out by parade participants. He said there are several floats in the parade and at least two high school bands. Also marching and riding in the parade are a throng of young Lehigh athletes.
Reisinger said there will be awards given to winners of certain categories in the parade, all geared toward the theme. The judges' stand will be in front of the SunTrust Bank on Homestead Rd., and Vicki Culver is expected to be one of the emcees who introduces each unit as it passes by.
It is also an ideal spot to see some of the participants in the parade perform.
The parade's theme this year is "You can't beat the beat" taken from the show Hairspray. It is in memory of Danny Stephenson, who was a well-known local musician, and emcee of most events at the festival.
People like Debbie Jackson and others on the festival parade committee, say Stephenson is sorely missed and they wanted to devote the entire festival this year in his memory.
Large crowds have been turning out at the festival each night since last Friday with several attractions and things to do. The festival comes to an end this weekend with the parade and on Friday night, the featured entertainment is the Nowhere Band, a group of young musicians who pay tribute to the Beatles. They were here last year and are being brought back by popular demand.
The Nowhere Band is set to start at around 8 p.m. It is free to the public, but there is a small fee to park and members of the Lehigh Soccer League will be on hand to direct people to available parking spots. They share in the parking proceeds.
There should be more room this year for parking because of the extension of the park.
The parade on Saturday is expected to last at least an hour and a half. People line the parade route and many stake out their places to watch with ropes and strings the night before. There are plenty of parking lots all along the route in the strip shopping centers. Many parade watchers come with their own lawn chairs and some with umbrellas for protection from the sun.
Parade planners urge those who attend to use sun blocker from becoming sunburned.
It has never rained on the day of the parade which began at least four decades ago. That was the word from the late Charlie Matheny who was the chairman of the festival for many years before his death about 10 years ago. And Reisinger is hoping there will be no rain this year.
Since last Friday when the festival began with grand opening ceremonies and a musical presentation by the East Lee County High School and the Footnotes Dance and Music studio, there have been many other events. There was a pet show, an Easter Egg Hunt, a Spring Festival Baby/Toddler Pageant and a Diaper Derby. Also held on Sunday was the Miss Spring Festival Prince and Princess Pageant and the younger Miss Spring Festival Pageant.
Both the Junior and adult Festival Idol contests began Sunday.
The following is a schedule for the rest of the week, as provided by Debbie Jackson, one of the half dozen members of the festival.
n 6:30 p.m.: Registration begins for Chili Contest
n 6:30 p.m.: Spring Festival Idol Alumni
n 7 p.m.: Susan Katz Dance Studio Sponsored by Lehigh Towne Centre
n 7:30 p.m.: Judging begins for Chili Contest
n 8 p.m.: Junior Spring Festival Idol Contest
n 9 p.m.: Spring Festival Idol Contest
Thursday March 21
n 6:30 p.m.: Registration begins for Flowers, Fruit & Vegetable Contests
n 6:30 p.m.: Lehigh Senior High School Sponsored by East Side Printing
n 7:30 p.m.: Judging begins for Contests
n 7:30 p.m.: Junior Spring Festival Idol Contest Semi-Finals Tonight
n 9 p.m.: Spring Festival Idol Contest Semi-Finals Tonight
Friday March 22
n 6:30 p.m.: Junior Spring Festival Idol Contest Finals Tonight.
n 6:30 p.m.: Greater Lehigh Acres Chamber of Commerce Business After Hours (Pavilion at the back of the park)
n 7:15 p.m.: Announce the Winner of the Honorary Mayor Race
n 7:30 p.m.: Spring Festival Idol Contest Finals Tonight
n 8:30 p.m.: "The Nowhere Band" Beatles Tribute Band.
Saturday March 23
n 7 a.m.: Shrine Club Masonic Lodge Pancake Breakfast (Behind SunTrust Bank)
n 11 a.m.: Lehigh Spring Festival Grand Parade sponsored by Lehigh Regional Medical Center on Homestead Rd.
n 12:30 p.m.: Music, announcements and carnival rides
n 1:30 p.m.: E.L. Smith Project
n 3 pm: The Certified Band - Jazz-Rock-Rhythm & Blues Motown
n 4:30 p.m.: Crossfire - Southern Rock/Country
n 6 p.m.: The Michael King Band - Country Music with a Side of Rock & Roll
n 7 p.m.: Intermission/ Special Tribute to the late Danny Ray Stephenson
n 8 p.m.: Live & Learn Rock Finale