The East Coast has its Macy's Day Parade, but here in the Bay Area, we have the annual America's Children's Holiday Parade in Oakland. Like New York, our parade is also broadcast on TV (PBS), has giant balloons, and boasts the famous Tap Dancing Christmas Trees who have performed in the Macy's Day Parade but have their origin and base of operations in Alameda, CA.
This is the perfect activity to take children to, but adults seem to enjoy it just as much as the kids. The parade usually happens in early December, this year on December 7th, and is always on a Saturday. This year, the parade started at 2 pm.
One of my favorite parts of the parade is when the horses come prancing through because that's something children in the Bay Area don't often see, and the looks on their faces are priceless. This year, one of the riders stopped on the sidelines and let the children pet his horse. A few were brave enough to do so, more just sat in terrified awe, happy to look and not touch.
Of course, children's favorites include popular TV and book characters like Garfield, Caillou, Maisy, Cat in the Hat, Skippyjon Jones, and (to my sister's delight) Tacky the Penguin. And then, of course, there are the balloons. It's hilarious watching the handlers maneuver them through the often windy, street-sign studded streets, and the kids are just amazed by their size.
There's also many chances for Bay Area residents to show some local school pride when their city marching bands, dance teams, and cheer squads come through. Most of the instruments are decked with decorations. One tuba this year wore a wreath, some were wrapped in wrapping paper, many had bows. And the performances are always fantastic.
My favorite group, however, is the 501st Legion of Storm Troopers, a group of Star Wars characters so authentic you'll do a double take. As they pass, it's the parents' turn to transform into little children, waving frantically, uttering "ooooohs" and "aaaaahs," and sometimes clapping or jumping up and down with uncontrollable fan euphoria. Last year, one of the storm troopers was carrying Yoda in a backpack, and Darth Vader's vehicle was more elaborate, but this group never ceases to amaze.
You also don't want to miss the miniature BART and AC Transit vehicles that make public transportation a little more endearing for at least 20 minutes. This year, there was also a wonderful Scottish Highland Prince Charles Pipe Band I hope to see again in the upcoming years. And, best of all, their are plenty of cotton candy vendors walking the route. Nothing says "reliving childhood" like a gentle cloud of pure sugar. Hey, it's the holidays.
Now for tips to make the parade as stress-free as possible. First, avoid AC Transit AT ALL COSTS. All the websites encourage parade goers to use AC Transit, but you will regret this choice. Because I don't live close to the BART anymore, my sister and I took the bus this year. The bus, which all the websites told us would take us directly to the parade, actually dumped everyone off on 6th and Washington. So we all had to walk eight more blocks to reach the parade route. After the parade, we had to walk to Castro Street to pick up the diverted 51A, another five block trek.
Plus, no one seemed to know what the bus route changes were for the day, not even the bus drivers. We asked one bus driver where to catch the 51A to the Fruitvale BART, and he directed us to an AC Transit official, who was fielding a complaint from a rider who said there were no postings anywhere about a changed route for the day. Then, when we got on the bus, our bus driver drove in a circle before having to ask a passenger how to get to 7th Street. AC Transit hadn't given her an accurate route map. There seemed to have been no planning, or at least no communication between AC Transit, its drivers, and riders. There were crowds of confused, disgruntled passengers running back and forth trying to find their regular buses.
That being said, driving can be stressful because of the parking situation. A lot of streets are closed for the parade, and parking can be a pain. Plus, with the increase in car thefts and break ins in the Bay Area, leaving your car can be nerve wracking. However, if you have to choose between driving and AC Transit, I would choose driving. Even paying more for a cab is worth it, if you have that option.
The best transportation choice by far is BART, as long as you live close enough to a station or can leave your car at a reliable, safe station. BART drops you off in the heart of the parade route with no walking (unless you want the perfect spot). The best stop if you're taking BART is 12th Street although 19th will also drop you on the parade route.
Keep in mind that bathrooms are few and far between. Most of the businesses that have a bathroom require a code or key to use it, and the lines can be annoying. Last year, the city provided portable toilets, but they were DISGUSTING. So go to the bathroom before and have a bathroom in mind, just in case.
Also, dress warmly, and by warmly, I mean dress as if you're on an excursion to the North Pole. Last year, I had to run into Rite Aid and buy extra blankets because we were freezing. This year, we had coats, hats, and scarves on, and we still froze. Pack extra layers and blankets.
The nice thing is you don't really have to worry about getting to the parade early for seats. This year, most people arrived right at the start of the parade, and there were still plenty of good seats. Also, consider eating at a local restaurant or café to support the local businesses before or after the parade, but remember to tip big because workers have had to deal with rush after rush all day (especially in coffee houses).
Below, you can peruse photos from last year and this year's parade. You can also visit the official parade website for more info: http://americas-holiday-parade.com/. And don't forget to check out the Tap Dancing Christmas Trees' website, http://thetapdancingchristmastrees.com/, for their history and events.