Wearing a plastic American-flag top hat, Isabella Espinoza sat on her father’s shoulders Friday morning, watching marching bands, beauty queens and old soldiers parade along Third Street at Ralston Park.
The 9-year-old Winton girl softly sang along to “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and nodded enthusiastically when asked if she would like to someday sing it in front of the crowds of people who clustered together in tight knots for the annual Fourth of July parade in Atwater.
“I’m waiting for the fireworks,” she said.
Isabella came to the parade with her father, Eric, sister Ariana, and her father’s girlfriend, Marta.
“We come every few years, it’s something nice to do with the family,” Eric Espinoza said. “We’ll have a barbecue later with our family. Tonight we’ll watch the fireworks at Castle.”
Each year, the city’s daylong Fourth of July festivities draws thousand of people throughout the day to downtown Atwater and Ralston Park, event organizers said.
Stacy Leal, one of the parade coordinators, said Independence Day festivities are an “important tradition” in Atwater, but they nearly didn’t happen this year.
“We almost didn’t make our (financial) balance this year, but the whole community pitched in and really came through with donations,” Leal said.
The Fourth of July Committee received a large donation from Joseph Gallo Farms, which also participated in the parade with two large bulls on display, Leal said.
“We’ve never had bulls in the parade before; that was unique,” she said. “We’ve also never had Miss California (Marina Inserra) in our parade before, either. That was also unique this year.”
Marching in Friday’s parade were 72 groups, including 19 floats, along with classic sports cars, tractors and the Atwater High School marching band.
Dozens of prizes were handed out to participants. The Best in Show award went to the Atwater Youth Drop-In Program. Their baseball-themed float featured apple pie, hot dog mascots carrying large banners and replica jerseys from some of baseball’s greatest players. The group led the crowd in a rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”
“It was really one of the very best we’ve had,” Leal said.
The festivities ended Friday night with a fireworks show. Similar events were held in Gustine, Los Banos and Livingston.
Friends and families gathered throughout the day at Ralston Park, playing games and enjoyingvariety of food, from pepper steak, pulled pork and tri-tip sandwiches, to bacon-wrapped hot dogs, orange chicken rice bowls and crispy funnel cakes towering with strawberries, cherries and whipped cream.
“I come for all the local color and to think about our freedom,” said Sally Olson of Merced. “It’s a great family event.”