As it has done for the past 20 years, the Quad-City Arts Festival of Trees Holiday Parade rang in the Quad-Cities’ holiday season Saturday and brought out the Christmas cheer.
Despite concerns over the predicted winds, the conditions remained calm enough to let a nutcracker, Fred Flintstone, Jolly Old Saint Nick and a cast of other giant inflatables to float through the streets of downtown Davenport.
Thousands of families lined 2nd and 3rd streets to cheer on their favorite balloon and the handlers whose volunteer efforts put the community in the holiday spirit.
This year’s parade was led by a birthday cake balloon to mark the 20th anniversary of what has become the Midwest’s largest holiday balloon parade.
“There might be others with bigger balloons, but our claim is we have the most,’’ said Mel Drucker, the holiday parade manager.
While area retail stores already have begun their holiday season, he said it is the parade “that really kicks off the season and the Festival of Trees for the Quad-Cities.”
Hundreds of employees, families and friends from a few dozen Quad-City businesses and organizations united their efforts to carry the 22 balloons through the streets. Winds of 15-20 mph kept volunteers holding on tighter than usual as they traversed downtown and maneuvered under a pair of skywalks.
Rita Titman, who led her team of handlers from Alcoa Davenport Works for a fifth year, said she had a good group of veterans helping. Over the years, they have seen “the good, the bad and the ugly” in terms of weather.
“This is actually nicer than I expected,” she said.
Titman, who seemed quite comfortable with her megaphone, was pleased Alcoa was again carrying the NASA astronaut, given the aluminum maker’s aerospace ties.
‘‘We never have trouble getting volunteers. In fact, some years I’ve had to turn a few away,” she said.
Co-worker Jerry Schaver, a 22-year veteran of Alcoa, was participating in and seeing his first Festival of Trees Parade. After moving to Silvis from Albany, Ill., he is “doing more in the community and this is good for the community.”
Not sure what to expect, he knew Titman would lead the way.
“As long as everyone hangs on, we’ll be good,” he said before the parade.
Also making its first parade appearance was S.J. Smith Co., which organized a team to lead a Santa balloon after getting called in to supply the helium for inflating the massive balloons. Richelle Smith-Brecht, the company’s president, said the family-owned safety, welding and industrial supply company got a last-minute request after the original supplier did not have enough helium.
“This is actually a good time,” she said. “We don’t get to see each other outside of work and just have fun together.”
Timm Evans, the company’s executive vice president, made the trip up from Decatur, Ill., to join the fun. He said S.J. Smith happened to have the 60,000 cubic feet of the helium gas on hand.
“There is a shortage of helium nationwide,” he said, adding that research needs and medical uses are demanding more and more. “The supply can’t keep up with the demand.”
But no strangers to balloon handling were the city of Bettendorf employees. The team of nearly 40 adopted a new city name — Bettrock — for the day to go with their Fred Flintstone balloon.
Bettendorf City Administrator Decker Ploehn, who was dressed as Fred’s pal Barney, said the city employees have been dressing in costumes for nearly 10 of the 15 years they have been in the parade. The team, with a representative from nearly every department, even decorated a golf cart to portray Fred Flintstone’s foot-powered car and a wagon with two Bettrock Bulldogs.
“It’s important to support the community, and this is an event where the whole Quad-Cities comes together,” Ploehn said.
Along the streets, spectators were showing their holiday spirit — donning red Santa hats and rocking back and forth to the Christmas music piped out from the high school marching bands and various parade floats.
“This is the first day I’ve had my holiday sweater on,’’ said Kathy Taylor, whose husband, Joe, is the head of the Quad-Cities Convention & Visitors Bureau. Just spectators this year, the couple carried many a balloon over the years.
Joe Taylor said he’s often quizzed why there is not a lighting event closer to Christmas.
“The Festival of Trees and parade really is the Quad-Cities’ holiday celebration,” he said. “I like having it this time of year because it does extend the season.”
Six-year-old Mary Michele Mohr of Orion, Ill., had a prime viewing spot as she poked her head — covered in a red-nosed Rudolph hat — out the sunroof of her family’s vehicle. She was excited to see the huge flag balloon and Santa Claus as her dad, Mike Mohr, and 2-year-old brother, Aaron, kept warm inside.
“We’ve never made it to this parade. This is beautiful,” her mom, Crissy Mohr, said. “We finally made it, and now we’ll probably never miss it.”