Edison Fest parade: 50 illuminating facts about the Fort Myers tradition (2024)

It all started in 1938.

Since then, the Edison Festival of Light Grand Parade has grown into an annual tradition that draws thousands to downtown Fort Myers to marvel at the elaborate floats and glittering royalty.

Here are 50 illuminating facts about the parade, its long history and its namesake, inventor Thomas Edison.

1. The Edison Festival of Light began in February 1938 as a way to honor Fort Myers' most famous winter resident, Thomas Edison. Back then, it was called the Pageant of Light.

2. The Edison Festival of Light Grand Parade is considered to be one of the biggest night parades in the Southeast United States.

3. Parade organizers shine a light on notable Southwest Florida residents and celebrities every year with their annual marshals and honorary marshals.

4. Past marshals have included singing cowboy Roy Rogers, comedian Red Skelton, actor Jerry Van Dyke (Dick Van Dyke's brother), tennis player Jimmy Connors, local Olympian Al Oerter, TV personality Willard Scott, football player Johnny Unitas and Hall of Fame baseball pitcher Bert Blyleven.

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5. At least a dozen high-school marching bands from Southwest Florida and beyond march every year.

6. The popular Indianapolis Metropolitan Motorcycle Drill Team often wows parade spectators with their daredevil acrobatics — including standing on their motorcycle seats, surfboard style.

7. The festival celebrated its 50th anniversary in 1988 with three celebrity appearances: Grand Marshal Khrystyne Haje (who played Simone on the TV series "Head of the Class"), pop star Teena Marie and actor/U.S. Rep. Fred Grandy. Grandy played Gopher on the TV show "Love Boat," and crowds shouted "Gopher! Gopher!" as he passed by on a float playing the show's theme song.

8. The parade's king and queen wear crowns and scepters purchased from two companies in New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama, that specialize in Mardi Gras costumes. The royals rule over a mythical land called Edisonia.

Tiny Shriners cars and Thomas Edison's coffee habit

9. There's just something funny about a grown man squeezed into a really tiny car. That’s why the Araba Shriners are always a big hit with parade watchers. The Fort Myers organization drives a fleet of miniature Ford Model T replicas called Tin Lizzies and Flintstones cars driven by Shriners in Flintstones costumes. Plus, there's full-sized Jeeps and several golf carts driven by Shriners dressed as clowns.

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10. The tiny cars are a Shriner thing. In other parts of the country, members of the international fraternal group drive mini cars shaped like airplanes, fire trucks, Volkswagen bugs, Corvettes, dune buggies and even bathtubs. "If a Shriner can put wheels on something, they will ride or drive it," says the official book "Shriners: A Pictorial History." "The purpose of these novelty vehicle units is to promote fun and brotherhood, as well as to generate awareness for the fraternity and Shriners Hospitals for Children."

11. Seventy-five years ago, the top float in the very first Edison Parade was a "mobilized flower garden" with "thousands of bright bougainvillea blossoms" created by Everglades Nursery, according to The News-Press archives.

12. A News-Press editorial weighed in on that 1938 parade the following day: "The Junior Chamber (which organized the parade at the time) accomplished more than providing a day's spectacle. The purpose was to establish the Edison celebration on a permanent basis. In doing so, a high standard was insisted upon in order to give the future something to shoot at."

13. Thomas Edison routinely drank three or four cups of coffee every day — often with two heaping spoonfuls of sugar. He also smoked about 20 cigars a day. Amazingly, he lived to the ripe age of 84.

14. Edison died Oct. 18, 1931, in West Orange, New Jersey.

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15. The Indianapolis Metropolitan Motorcycle Drill Team exclusively rides police-issue Harley-Davidson Road Kings. The 800-pound motorcycles particularly suit many of the team's tricks, including standing up in the bike's seat. "The cycles have a huge flywheel," said team commander Bart McAtee. "If you fell off the cycle, it'd just keep on going in a straight line. It doesn't fall over."

16. An iron lung once appeared on its own float in the festival.

Kings, queens and Fort Myers' most famous neighbors

17. Every year, members of the Pageant of Light and the Fort Myers Woman's Community Club choose a new king and queen of Edisonia from a group of 12 teens and twenty-somethings. Then those new royals appear in the Grand Parade accompanied by princes, princesses, dukes, duch*esses and the rest of the royal court.

18. The first king and queen of Edisonia were chosen in 1938: James E. Hendry III and Virginia Sheppard. They were crowned Feb. 11. "It was the biggest thrill I've ever had," Sheppard, now deceased, told The News-Press in 1988. "More than getting married."

19. Thomas Edison moved to Fort Myers in 1885 as a winter resident.

20. Edison’s friend, legendary carmaker Henry Ford, eventually bought a house next door in 1916. Their homes are now a popular museum and tourist attraction, The Edison & Ford Winter Estates.

21. The first Edison Festival of Light Grand Parade featured 40 floats, four bands and a bicycle brigade.

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22. The three-day festival also featured a jalopy derby, a street carnival, a cracker band contest and the coronation of a king and queen.

23. The Festival of Light and its parade were postponed from 1942-1945 because of World War II. They returned in 1946 and have been held every year since then except for 2021, when the grand parade and junior parade were canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Other, smaller Edison Fest events still happened that year, though.

24. The Grand Parade became a night parade in 1953 in honor of Edison's invention of the commercial light bulb. Floats were decorated with lights — a tradition that continues to this day.

25. A children's coronation and baby parade were added to the festival in 1946.

26. The Budweiser Clydesdales are another one of the parade’s most popular regulars. They feature a hitch of eight of the massive Scottish horses.

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27. That Clydesdale tradition dates to 1933, when August A. Busch Sr.'s sons surprised him with six horses and a beer wagon to commemorate the end of Prohibition. Now the horses travel the country to promote their brand and delight the crowds.

28. The Pageant of Light isn't the same thing as the Edison Festival of Light. The Festival of Light is a nonprofit that organizes the parade and other events. The private Pageant of Light crowns the Royal Court of Edisonia every year.

29. The king of Edisonia's crown is covered with about 500 crystals and is filled out with green velvet. It weighs about 5 pounds.

30. The parade’s namesake, inventor Thomas Edison, had more than 1,000 U.S. patents for his inventions, including the first commercial light bulb, a universal stock ticker, the phonograph and the motion picture camera.

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31. The annual spaghetti dinner at St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church is a parade tradition. Volunteers feed about 1,000 people with more than 150 pounds of spaghetti, plus breadsticks and dessert.

How the Edison Fest parade got started

32. The origins of the parade date to 1885, when Lee County was incorporated and residents threw themselves a big party — complete with cowboys showing off their roping and riding skills. The winning cowboy got the privilege of choosing a young woman to be the "Queen of Love and Beauty."

33. That earlier celebration eventually became the Sunshine Pageant in the 1920s, including an Edisonia-like Sunshine Court. The event transformed into the Pageant of Light in 1938 to honor Thomas Edison. The inventor had died seven years earlier.

34. The original Festival of Light started as a three-day event. Now the festival features activities for more than two weeks every February.

35. Festival events usually include car shows, runs, an inventors fair, a hymn sing, a flower show, a craft show and more.

36. The path to king and queen is a complicated process. The royals start out as dukes and duch*esses. The next year, they become princes and princesses and compete to become king and queen of the mythical land of Edisonia. The king and queen are crowned in February and appear on a float in the Grand Parade the next day.

37. Royal Court of Edisonia applicants must be Lee County residents, unmarried and 19 to 24 years old.

38. The crowns, robes, scepter and other vestments used by the king and queen of Edisonia have gone through five or six incarnations over the years.

39. Thomas Edison used to drive a black Model T touring car around Fort Myers. It was a gift from buddy and next-door neighbor Henry Ford in 1916. The car later made appearances in the parade.

40. It takes about 100 volunteers to put on the grand parade every year.

41. The festival queen wears a crown and matching scepter from Alabama company The Dynasty Collection. They cost about $1,000. The crown stands about 5 inches tall and features Swarovski crystals and a silver finish.

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42. The King and Queen of Edisonia wear green-velvet robes with gold and silver sequins in the patterns of a crown and the letter "E" for Edison. The edges are lined with rabbit fur. The tails are made of ermine.

43. The queen's robe is about 13 feet long. The king's is about 10 feet. A sheet of plastic is sewn to the inside of the robes so they slide easily across the floor when the royalty walks.

44. Thomas Edison didn't consider the commercial light bulb to be his greatest invention. He preferred the phonograph.

45. The Edison Bridge — named after Thomas Edison — opened in 1929 on the inventor's 82nd birthday. President Herbert Hoover came to Fort Myers for the occasion.

46. The first Edison Festival of Light Grand Parade drew an estimated 12,000 spectators, according to organizers.

47. Now the festival draws an estimated 100,000-200,000 people, organizers say.

48. In a nod to Thomas Edison, a Young Inventor's Fair was added to the Festival in 1986 so local school children could show off their own inventions and creations.

49. The parade usually has about 150 units, including more than 30 floats.

50. The Grand Parade usually takes about two hours to finish.

Connect with this reporter:Charles Runnells is an arts and entertainment reporter for The News-Press and the Naples Daily News. Email him at crunnells@gannett.com or connect on Facebook (facebook.com/charles.runnells.7), Twitter (@charlesrunnells) and Instagram (@crunnells1). You can also call at 239-335-0368.

Edison Fest parade: 50 illuminating facts about the Fort Myers tradition (2024)

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