For nearly three-quarters of a century, the DeSoto Heritage Festival Grand Parade has been one of the year's biggest events in Bradenton. In fact, its reputation far exceeds Manatee County lines, for it is hailed as one of the oldest and most impressive parades in the entire state of Florida.
This year’s 72nd annual parade, which drew thousands of spectators along Manatee Avenue West and neighboring streets, included more than 150 entries, with dozens of elaborate floats, high school marching bands, fire trucks and more.
Aimee Cardillo, who is originally from Brooklyn but now resides in Bradenton, has been attending the Grand Parade for seven years. She said that she and her children were impressed by this year’s collection of “really neat floats," and threw in her vote for the Bella Danza Dance & Ballroom Academy for her favorite because her daughter was riding on it this year.
Valerie Maybry of Bradenton is a long-time parade veteran who has been attending or participating for the past 23 years. Formerly a Bayshore High School marching band member, Maybry now enjoys bringing her children out to the event hosted annually by the Hernando de Soto Historical Society in recognition of the famed Conquistador. In the past, she said, she has watched the parade from Manatee Avenue, but this year decided to avoid the bigger crowd and set up camp in front of Manatee High.
“This was probably the calmest crowd I’ve ever seen,” Maybry said. “I like it this way.”
Maybry said that her family’s favorite part of this year’s parade was the parachute drop by the U.S. Special Operations Command Parachute Demonstration Team. Three Para-Commandos launched into a free-fall one mile above Manatee High’s football field, released their parachutes and glided gracefully down onto the field followed by trails of red smoke.
“It was really neat,” Maybry said. “I don’t think they’ve done that in the past, at least not to my recollection. The kids absolutely loved it.”
Following the demonstration, the DeSoto 5K run officially kicked off the parade at 6:30 p.m. as competing runners took off down Manatee Avenue before a crowd of cheering spectators.
Ellie Ohlman, a 2010 Lakewood Ranch High graduate, was chosen from a group of more than 100 nominees and crowned this year’s Queen. She shared her spot at the hull of the Hernando de Soto Conquistador Crewe’s San Cristobal II float with Vince Eurice, this year’s “Hern” – short for Hernando De Soto, Ohlman explained.
Just like the queens, a new Hern is elected every year and together, the Queen and her Hern travel all over the United States to mingle with different crewes and draw them to Bradenton. A crewe, Eurice said, generally consists of 35 or more men who represent 16th century conquistadors, and the process to become an official crewe member takes years of participation.
Dozens of floats rolled through town for the duration of the nearly three-hour event, representing various businesses, charity organizations, schools, sports teams and more. One thing that every float had — and had an abundance of — was beads. The infectious top-40 music that was blasting from the various floats got the crowd dancing, and it became clear the more that spectators danced, the more beads they would collect.
Grand Parade veteran Crystal Burkhart has fond memories of attending the parade with her mother ever since she was a little girl.
“Oh, gosh, how long have we been coming to this, Mom?” Burkhart asked her mother. “Thirty-one years?”
This year was particularly special for Burkhart because she got the chance to pass down the tradition to her own daughter, 20-month-old Brooke.
“We were a little worried that she would get antsy,” Burkhart confessed. “But she didn’t, not for a moment. She was completely mesmerized by all of the floats and beads the entire time. She had a blast.”