Popcorn, power walkers and political figures — just some of the things you can expect at UF Homecoming.
After a slow, but steady return to in-person events in 2021 following Homecoming’s cancellation in 2020, the parade and other festivities are back in full force. Homecoming festivities initiated the morning of Oct. 7 with a festival, the Gator Gallop run and the annual Homecoming parade.
Bounce houses and balloon arches began to rise up from the ground of the Plaza of the Americas. The set-up for the festival had begun.
More than 20 tabling events for different campus groups dotted the plaza, advertising student organizations and local businesses.
The groups passed out buttons and stickers for passersby to take home as memorabilia. Some even had activities planned, like the UF Chemistry Club, which set up a station for participants to make slime. The Center for Arts and Medicine provided markers and crayons for people to decorate their paper crowns — another accessory for decked out Gators to don in the Homecoming festivities.
For the organizations, the foot traffic of UF alumni approaching their tables meant a chance to spread the word about their meetings and events. But for some, it also meant sharing their culture.
The Indonesian Student Association has attended the festival three times now, ISA president Alfredo Sadriya said.
They dressed in Indonesian sarongs and brought several angklungs, a traditional Indonesian instrument made out of bamboo that is played similarly to Western handbells. That afternoon, they would play them for the audience of people dressed in bright orange and blue.
“I’m really happy to have this kind of sharing with others about our nation,” Sadriya said.
That morning, Homecoming General Chair Emma Carter said she anticipated around 1,000 people to walk through the festival. After temporarily halting Homecoming celebrations in 2020 and easing back into things in 2021, she said she felt confident that this year would be a success.
“Last year was kind of working out all the kinks of a new system,” she said. “And this year we’re back and ready to roll, which is really wonderful for the students so they can have that tradition.”
Bounce houses began to fill up with energetic kids as families started to walk through the plaza. As the people arrived, so did the food trucks: B’z Gelati, Halo Potato Donuts and Big Island Bowls stopped by to sell ice cream and acai to hungry attendees.
Gainesville resident Jamesha McWilliams had to make a personal sacrifice for her three kids to be at the festival, she said.
McWilliams is a FSU grad, and she wasn’t wearing orange and blue. She’s taken part in UF Homecoming events in the past, and she’s always been tempted to wear an FSU shirt, she said. But she comes because her kids love to watch the parade.
Her family skipped out on the events during 2020 and 2021, she said, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. McWilliams wanted to attend this year because it would be her 2-year-old’s first time, she said.
The toddler stuck close to McWilliams while her other two children climbed into the bounce house. All of her children seemed to be turning into Gator fans, she said, and she joked she’s betraying her own alma mater by bringing them to UF Homecoming.
“Living in Gainesville, they’re getting brainwashed,” she said, laughing. “But I guess bringing them here isn’t helping.”
On the far side of Plaza, almost 500 people lined up with race bibs below a banner labeled ‘Start’ on one side and ‘Finish’ on the other.
They were there for Gator Gallop, the 2-mile-long race held during UF Homecoming celebrations for decades. It followed a route that looped through campus and finished back at the plaza.
The race this year offered prizes for first, second and third place, as well as a prize for best costume. People were dressed in alligator hats and flashy orange and blue tutus while running.
Although organizations like the UF Florida Run Club treated the race as training — President Hannah Hosay was part of the first group to finish, coming in around the 12-minute mark — many others ran for fun. Some people roller skated or rode bikes. Several pushed infants in strollers or ran with their dogs.
Even third place winner and 24-year-old UF graduate student Johnathon Johnson said the race was a way to celebrate school spirit for him. He took first place last year, but getting dethroned didn’t feel too bad, he said. Johnson finished at the 11:31-minute mark.
“The other [winners] are really nice,” he said. “You can’t complain about that.”
Don Prokes, Sandy Wetherhold, Judy Ford, Nancy Besley and Jeff Davis have all been running the Gator Gallop for the past four years together. All in their 70s, the majority of them are UF alumni. All of them regularly attend Gator sports games like volleyball, softball, gymnastics and football.
The route this year is nicer than how it's been in the past, Prokes said. It let them see more of the campus through shadier spots. The group intends to keep coming to the Homecoming celebration and ‘power walking’ through the Gator Gallop for years to come.
“We hope we can do this for the next 30 years,” Prokes said. “Because then we’ll all be 100.”
Parade floats waited bumper-to-bumper in the crowded Norman Hall parking lot. The floats’ leaders chatted among themselves, taking group photos and preparing for the procession to come.
A total of 137 floats were themed and built by various on and off-campus Gainesville organizations, according to parade directors. Just some of which appeared this year were the UF Special Olympics, Planned Parenthood and Girl Scouts.
Will Munro, vice president of UF Special Olympics, hung out with his team of about 50 in front of their float before the parade began. They played Uno under the shade of a tent as they waited. The group participated in last year’s parade as well, both years hoping they’d spread their message of inclusion with the UF community, Munro said.
“The vision behind ‘what is inclusion’ is exactly what you're looking at here,” Munro said. “It's walking, walking as one.”
While some floats were attached to their vehicles in the form of signs or banners, others built specialized structures on which parade participants stood.
In the case of Planned Parenthood, the group built an about 10-foot tall cardboard vending machine featuring enormous paper-mache contraceptives in its “windows.”
The sculpture represented a Student Government resolution passed this summer allowing for emergency contraceptives to be sold in vending machines across campus, said Kai Christmas, regional organizer of the southeast Planned Parenthood.
“UF’s theme is ‘this is the moment,’” Christmas said. “And quite honestly, that ties so perfectly with what we are doing and what we are fighting for.”
Just as the parade was about to kick off, observers gathered with picnic blankets and lawn chairs on the sidewalk along 13th Street.
Katie Mizerak, a 31-year-old UF alum, was raised in Gainesville and grew up attending the Homecoming parade. This year, she carried on the tradition by bringing her own daughters — dressed in Gators cheerleader costumes — with her.
“It's lots of fun,” Mizerak said. “They enjoy seeing all the people in the parade and the floats and the bands.”
Lane Stidham, a 63-year-old UF alum, said he drove from Sarasota to Gainesville for the Homecoming parade and football game Saturday. With the exception of last year, he has attended every Homecoming parade for the past decade.
“Everybody should come to see Gainesville at a homecoming weekend and see the atmosphere,” Stidham said. “It's wonderful.”
Alissa Gary is a journalism freshman and university administration reporter at The Alligator. Aside from writing, she loves spending time with her cats, catching up on Jeopardy, and seeing the latest movies.
Siena Duncan is a sophomore journalism major and the graduate school beat reporter for the Alligator. When she's not out reporting, she's typically bothering her friends about podcasts or listening to Metric on repeat.