An hour before the start of Olympia’s annual, late-April parade called the Procession of the Species, the spirit of community is in action — kids draw on the closed-off streets of the route with 7,000 pieces of chalk set out for that purpose.
When the 4:30 p.m. start time of the Procession hits, the streets clear and all eyes are on the parade route, ready for the magic to begin. In a given year, the magic might include a skunk cabbage patch weaving its way through the streets, flower petals waving in unison like a scene from "Fantasia," a handmade giraffe puppet bobbing high above the crowds, or a swarm of funny, busy bumblebees — really a group of kindergartners in disguise.
For newcomers, the Procession of the Species is an annual community parade through the streets of downtown Olympia, taking place this year on Saturday, April 27 at 4:30 p.m. Procession participants of all ages dress in larger-than-life costumes, operate huge homemade puppets and pull animal floats, all intended to celebrate the creatures and elements of Mother Earth. In its 25th year, the Procession takes place around Earth Day each year and seeks to connect communities with the natural world.
While the Procession showcases creative self-expression, there are three rules for parade entries: no written words, no pets or live animals and no motorized vehicles. (Although electric wheelchairs are a welcomed exception.) These simple rules don't seem to stifle the participants' imaginations. A school of "fish" has swum its way through the parade on bicycles, and last year, a muster of peacock puppets strutted the route. (More than 60 people helped create the peacocks and it took 20 people to operate the main peacock alone.)
The Procession is a cherished Olympia tradition, drawing a large community turnout plus spectators from around the state and beyond. The event typically attracts 35,000 visitors and has more than 4,000 participants. The barrier to entry is minimal: Registering to participate in the Procession “costs” a canned food donation to the Thurston County Food Bank.
Despite its size and scope, the Procession has managed to maintain its small-town community feel. The local mom-and-pop and artisan shops that dot the streets add to the appeal, and it’s common to see kids riding in wagons and on shoulders, waving to passersby. The Procession is super kid-friendly, with participants interacting with those along the parade route, handing out high-fives, and appearing to genuinely enjoy the opportunity to entertain.
While exciting new costumes and creations enter the parade every year, the Procession also boasts some traditional highlights, such as my family’s favorite, the Samba Olywa percussion group, which has been performing in the Procession since 1995. The lively percussionists rotate their theme each year and act out an element of earth — air, water, earth or fire. This year, the group will represent earth, dancing and playing dressed as tigers.
More Procession fun – Arts Walk and Luminary Procession
The Procession coincides with Olympia's annual spring Arts Walk (Friday–Saturday, April 26–27), which includes hands-on family activities and impromptu street performances. More than 115 businesses and 400 visual and performing artists participate. Just a walk through the streets will provide plenty of entertainment, but it’ll be worth it to check out the downtown family-friendly art gallery, Gallery Boom, where colorful monsters (painted, sculpted and plush) are a kid favorite.
The Friday evening prior to the Procession of the Species (April 26 this year), the city comes alive with fire dancers, street musicians, and more, including the Procession’s little sister, the Luminary Procession, a lighted march from the Procession studio to Sylvester Park, where it culminates with a live band. The Luminary Procession begins at 8:30 p.m., which can be late for the littles, but if you happen to snag a room at The Governor Hotel facing park-side, you can watch from the window in your pajamas.
If you go...
Where: To reach downtown Olympia, take Exit 105 off I-5. Take Plum street toward downtown, head left (west) and start looking for a place to park. Parking in downtown Olympia is limited. Try to park on the surrounding side streets and walk a few blocks to the downtown core. Metered parking is free on weekends.
Hours: The Procession of the Species is Saturday, April 27, 4:30–6 p.m.; the Luminary Procession is Friday, April 26, 8:30 p.m.; and the Arts Walk is Friday, April 26, 5–10 p.m. and Saturday, April 27, noon–8 p.m.
Cost: All events are free and open to the public.
Tip: Spectators line the entire Procession route, shown in the route map. Claim a spot along the block where the parade ends, near Heritage Park Fountain, to enjoy the live music that marks the end of the parade.
More to explore around downtown Olympia:
Add some fun nearby stops for a full day or weekend adventure. Hands on Children’s Museum and WET Science Center make for fun kid play spots, along with the Olympia farmers market and the waterfront at Percival Landing (note: closed for repairs). All are within walking distance of each other, and the Procession route. If weather permits, picnic at Yashiro Japanese Garden or pop into Old School Pizzeria for a slice and some arcade games, or enjoy homemade pub fare and a local brew at the family-friendly Three Magnets Brewing Co.
Editor's note: This article was originally published in 2017 and updated for 2019.