The Candy Cane Lane Parade made a triumphant return this week to the streets of downtown Visalia, attracting one of the largest crowds of attendees in its 75-year history.
Downtown Visalians, the parade's organizers, announced the winners of the annual holiday tradition on Wednesday.
Visalia Technical Early College won the parade's "Best Theme" award for their "Santa's Farm Yard Friends" float. The agriculture-focused high school honored their farm roots with a makeshift barn that the school's shop students built from scratch.
The school's large Future Farmers of America chapter shepherded live cows, sheep and goats dressed as reindeer down the parade route, much to the amusement of children in the crowd.
In total, about a hundred students were involved in creating the float and marching it through downtown on Monday.
"This year, we decided to get the FFA students in more of a leadership role. Students on campus wanted [the float] to look like a barn, so we tasked our mechanics kids with building the frame," said Travis Wyrick, FFA director. "We were able to showcase what our school is really about, and we're thrilled that the [parade organizers] recognized us with an award."
VTEC student Metzli Oliver marched in the parade and helped get the animals ready for their holiday spotlight.
"It was awesome to see the crowd and hear that we won. We put so much work into the float," she said. "A lot of us at VTEC are passionate about animals and ag, and we're happy that we really got to showcase that at the parade."
VTEC wasn't the only Tulare County school recognized for its festive flair. Dinuba High School marched away with the Christmas parade's "Best Band" award this year for their mix of holiday classics and breakdance-influenced drum cadences.
Instructor John Domingcil said the band was electrified by Monday's tens of thousands of attendees, "feeding off their energy as the crowd cheered them on."
"It was so great to get back to marching again because of the pandemic," he said. "We’ve had several competitions this year, but there’s nothing like a great Christmas parade, and Visalia has one of the best Christmas parades in the state."
Elite Dance Academy, a Visalia company that offers dance classes for children ages 18 months to 18 years, won the parade's "Best Dance Group" award for their "Elves in Toyland" routine.
"We'd never won before, and it was awesome. We had almost 100 kids riding and dancing in a 40-foot trailer," employee Shelby Brooks said. "It was exciting to finally win after spending all morning and the day before preparing the float."
This year's parade celebrated frontline healthcare workers for their service amid the coronavirus pandemic. Doctors and employees with Kaweah Health and Family Health Care Network led the route as parade Grand Marshal.
Family Health Care Network also snagged this year's "Sweepstakes Award."
"It was wonderful to be a part of this long-held tradition and to see the community together again in celebration," said Malorie Barragan, an FHCN representative. "Our health care team members were grateful for the community recognition.”
Visalia Mayor Steve Nelsen thanked the winners and all parade participants. He said this year's crowd looked to be the largest ever. The parade was forced to cancel last year because of the pandemic.
"Candy Cane Lane kicks off the Christmas season for Visalia. We missed out on that last year, so I think it created a sense of and return to normalcy for a lot of people," he said.
After having last year off, he said many participants brought their A-game this week. There were 76 entrants this year, down from the typical hundred or so that the parade usually sees.
"People really stepped it up," Nelsen said. "We encourage not only participation but for entrants to get into the holiday mindset, to bring festivity and humor to their floats.
"I think people grasped that and it showed this year."
Joshua Yeager is a reporter with the Visalia Times-Delta and a Report for America corps member. He covers Tulare County news deserts with a focus on the environment and local governments.
This article originally appeared on Visalia Times-Delta: VTEC, Dinuba HS among Candy Cane Lane Parade winners, as event draws biggest crowds ever