Wellington’s Holiday Parade is 35 years old — older than the Village of Wellington itself. Presented by the Central Palm Beach County Chamber of Commerce, this year’s parade on Sunday, Dec. 9 will give attendees a chance to thank its visionary organizer, Dennis Witkowski, who will be honored as this year’s grand marshal.
As self-effacing as he is popular, Witkowski never would have agreed to such a thing, so the vote was taken when he was absent.
“Dennis missed a committee meeting, and we took that opportunity to make him grand marshal,” laughed Mary Lou Bedford, CEO of the Central Palm Beach County Chamber of Commerce. “Typically, the grand marshal rides in front, but because Dennis organizes the entire parade, he’ll come up right before Santa Claus at the end.”
Witkowski envisioned the parade when Wellington, then an unincorporated community, was in its infancy. As people began to move to the area, and the first chamber of commerce was formed, he wanted a signature event to bring the western communities together. He brought his idea to the chamber board, and the rest is history.
“It’s half of my life. I’m 71 now,” Witkowski said. “In the beginning, my line was that I did it because I wanted to give something back to the community that had been so good to me.”
Over time, however, Witkowski came to a realization. “It’s not only doing something for the community — the parade gives me so much. The parade feeds me, I don’t feed it. It’s so rewarding; it gives me a warmth all over. I love it! I look forward to it all year,” he said. “It’s a love of my life; the next thing to family to me. It’s like an extra child — something I birthed and helped grow up. It’s part of my fabric.”
Witkowski estimates that when the parade was born in 1983, there were about 6,000 people living in Wellington. The first few parades attracted about 3,000 spectators.
“Now we have 3,000 participants in the parade, and about 20,000 spectators,” he said. “We have 10 marching bands, up from two. When we started, there was no commercial business on State Road 7 at all. There was one orange orchard near Forest Hill where you could get a glass of orange juice and look at an alligator. Now there are 60,000 residents in Wellington alone, and the parade is the same great blending of the community that it has always been — the deputies and firemen working in concert with the Village of Wellington and the chamber to make it the seamless event that it is.”
Witkowski is particularly proud of the fact that many of the early decisions made regarding the parade were good decisions — the staging, the dispersal, the order of march and, of course, the route. Not much of that has changed in 35 years.
The Holiday Parade will step off at 1:30 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 9, and run along Forest Hill Blvd. from the original Wellington Mall at Wellington Trace to the Wellington Community Center.
“A few times over the years, people wanted to consider a different route,” Witkowski recalled. “They talked about moving it to different communities, or down South Shore Blvd. due to traffic concerns. But the fact that we’ve had consistency is another wonderful part of it. Come that Sunday in December, everybody knows where it starts and where it ends. It inconveniences travel on Forest Hill for a few hours a year, but that’s a small price to pay. The crowds get bigger each year, and people sign up earlier, and everyone’s excited to know what the theme is so they can start planning for it earlier.”
This year’s parade theme, by the way, is “Holiday in Paradise.”
The floats, the marching bands, the dancers — everyone has their favorite part of the parade, including Witkowski himself.
“My favorite entries are the littlest ones,” he said. “The mothers are always concerned if they’re going to be able to walk that far, but they always make it. A couple of people now serving on the Wellington Village Council remember being in the parade as children, and now their kids are in it.”
Witkowski can relate to that. “One of the dearest memories that my wife Maureen and I share is of the first year, when my kids were riding in the back of a horse-drawn wagon,” he recalled. “The wagon hit a bump, and one of my sons fell out. No one let him move until we came to take him to the emergency room. He was complaining of a buzzing in his head, and we were worried he had a concussion. It turned out that a beetle had crawled into his ear while he was lying on the ground.”
Bedford said that Witkowski is a great family man, businessman and leader. “Our crew is so great, and Dennis gets them to pull together,” she said. “On parade day, he stands up there, very imposing, like a conductor. It doesn’t hurt that he’s tall, of course, but he’s just such a good person. The other volunteers work to line everyone up, and Dennis paces everybody and greets them all. It’s a labor of love that he does with enthusiasm.”
For more information about the Wellington Holiday Parade, call (561) 790-6200 or visit www.cpbchamber.com/holiday-parade.