Big changes afoot for Winter Carnival

‘Mask-erade’ to be more local and classic, like Carnivals decades ago

The Winter Carnival Gala Parade in February 2020 was one of the largest last mass gatherings of people in Saranac Lake before the COVID-19 pandemic struck in March. The 2021 parade is expected to be very different, possibly consisting of static, pop-up performances by some of the best-known parade groups. (Enterprise photo — Lou Reuter)

SARANAC LAKE — The 2021 Saranac Lake Winter Carnival is on, tentatively, and with many possible alterations during a coronavirus pandemic.

Winter Carnival Committee Chairman Jeff Branch delivered the current plan to the village board at its Monday meeting, which was held virtually due to rising COVID-19 cases in the area. The plan he described is very pared down but still recognizable as Winter Carnival.

“While the Saranac Lake Winter Carnival Committee does understand the seriousness of pandemic we are all battling, we also understand and believe that we as a community must work toward keeping tradition alive and normalcy in our day-to-day lives for social, mental, academic and financial health,” Branch read in a statement.

Winter Carnival is now only two-and-a-half months away. This year’s theme is “Mask-erade,” a spin on what was already a leading theme idea, “Masquerade.”

But all of this is up in the air, Branch said. Though the committee has spent a lot of time and effort to adapt the usual two-week-long event to the current times, “Things change on a daily basis” he said.

“It’s very hard to plan a Carnival,” Branch said. “But it’s very easy to cancel it. With a day’s notice, we could cancel it.”

He said the committee has agreed to pull back its promotion and not push to bring tens of thousands of people into town as usual. He said they are planning more of a local, classic Carnival like some may remember from decades past.

“We will be toning down our presence on social media, stressing that these are tentative plans,” Branch wrote in his notes, “and that, depending on conditions at the time, individual events and/or the entire Carnival will be canceled. However, regardless of which, there will be an Ice Palace. I believe that’s the least we can do.”

Ice Palace

Branch said the palace will have an open floor plan this year to build social distancing into its architecture. This will mean no maze, no mole hole and no stairs or tunnels.

“We are expecting our volunteers to be a lot lighter this year,” Branch said. “That may actually have a significant effect on what we do build and what we are able to build.”

He said the palace will be built and manned by workers who will wear masks, have their temperatures checked and be asked questions about their health. There will be signs asking attendees to mask up and socially distance.

“We are looking at a way to control the numbers of people who will be inside the palace at any given time, and also to close off the interior when we are not able to monitor traffic,” Branch wrote in his notes.

There will be no portable bathrooms, he said, as disinfecting would be difficult.

There will be no bus service this year, and Branch said they plan to close the boat launch parking lot to traffic to minimize the possibility of large groups forming.


Branch said some of Carnival’s many events will have to be canceled, and all the remaining ones will have to be held outside. Every event coordinator has been asked to let the committee know if their event is a “go” or “no-go” by Dec. 1, so Branch can begin discussing the plan with the insurance company.

The Rotary Show is a product of the local Rotary Club, he said, so he is unsure of its status this year. The same goes for Coronation, run by the Women’s Civic Chamber. Branch said Women’s Civic Chamber President Kelly Morgan told him Coronation will “most likely” be held at the Ice Palace with social distancing restrictions.

“We will be adding design elements to the Ice Palace that will allow for good viewing of the Coronation,” Branch wrote in his notes.


Branch “let the cat out of the bag” and announced that the king and queen will be Joseph Szwed and Nancy Howard Heath — the same as last year.

“We’re going to ask last year’s king and queen to have a do-over,” Branch said. “When COVID came they really didn’t have a chance to enjoy Carnival to its fullest. King and queen is actually a year-long commitment.”

There will not be a prince and princess this year as it is unknown if the two local colleges will be in session, he said.

The size of the royal group is reduced in general, he added, saying there may be no pages, either. He said the royalty float may still take a quick drive down Main Street and make a few appearances.


Branch said the proposed fireworks show will be modeled after the village of Tupper Lake’s July 4 fireworks, with viewers asked to stay in their cars. He said the music usually played over a PA system at the palace, synchronized with the show, will be broadcast over FM radio instead.

Village Manager John Sweeney said the village has a contract for fireworks with the same company that does the Winter Carnival fireworks — a leftover from the village’s Fourth of July fireworks show that was canceled due to COVID-19.

“Would it make sense that we try to align something with Winter Carnival?” he said.

Sweeney said the contract has already been paid for, so it would not be a gift, but the village could finance the show. All board members said they thought it was a good idea.

Branch said he would like to explore the idea of shutting down one or two lanes of the LaPan Highway and possibly part of Lake Flower Avenue for automobile viewing of the fireworks.


“We will have a parade, but it’s not a parade as we know a parade,” Branch said.

He said there will not be a train of floats and performers driving, marching and dancing down Broadway. The committee will ask some parade staples, such as the Lawn Chair Ladies or Canoodlers, to show up at unannounced locations around the village. This “Carnival Classics Parade” will be a static event at locations throughout the village, and perhaps one or two “flash mobs.”

Branch said no bands or groups will be invited from outside the village.

“If we do have any music, it will hopefully be provided by Bucket Ruckus,” Branch said, referring to a local drum troupe.

Buttons and sponsors

“Because of the state of things the only sure thing we are going to have for fundraising this year are the buttons,” Branch said. “Garry Trudeau is working on those diligently as we speak.”

He said the buttons are a major revenue source for the Carnival, and he expects this year they will sell out quickly.

Fundraising during Carnivals is done to pay for the next one. So this carnival is theoretically paid for, and sponsorships and button sales will go toward the 2022 Carnival.

Branch said he has no idea how much this Carnival is going to cost. He said the committee usually spends around $100,000.

“We are telling our sponsors this year, because of the uncertainty, ‘If you want to sponsor, great,’ but we are not going to ask anyone to cut a check until after Carnival has happened or has not happened,” Branch said.

Board response

Trustee Tom Catillaz said Branch had done a good job making these tough decisions. Branch said this has been a group effort of the whole Winter Carnival Committee.

“As we all know, I’m just the eye candy of the committee,” Branch said. “We have a great committee, and I would ask for the recognition to go to the entire committee.”

He said planning has been difficult but that committee members have enjoyed figuring out how to possibly make Winter Carnival still happen.

“I’d be lying if I said it was fun all the time, but I have a fantastic committee, and everyone is very dedicated to Winter Carnival,” Branch said. “We don’t do it because we have to; we do it because we love it. … While it’s been hard at some times, it’s also been very fun and very fulfilling.”

Trustee Rich Shapiro said he expects some negative pushback from the community upon hearing about the changes to Winter Carnival this year, or the fact that it is happening at all.

“I’d like to ask the board to stand firmly behind Jeff and the committee on these decisions,” Shapiro said.

Mayor Clyde Rabideau said he does not think there will be much pushback, saying he hopes people realize it is not a normal year, but said there may be some.

Trustee Melinda Little said the committee has done a “wonderful job.”

“I have been very skeptical, frankly, about whether Winter Carnival should happen, but after listening to your plan, I’m much more optimistic about it.”

“I’m much more at ease,” Trustee Zelda Newman said.

“Saranac Lake is a tremendous place,” Rabideau said. “COVID or not, this Carnival coming up will be very unique and very special.

“We are ‘Decidedly Different’ here in Saranac Lake,” he said, referencing the village’s slogan, “and this year we’ve got a decidedly different Carnival. We’ll make it work, one way or another.”


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