Dianne Ward, holding her little poodle Jackson – complete with his doggy-sized sunglasses – was browsing around at the Gator Harley-Davidson on U.S. Highway 441 in Leesburg.
She wasn’t alone.
Hundreds of other people were also at the massive 68,000 square-foot store to celebrate the kickoff of Leesburg’s 21st annual Bikefest, a weekend festival specifically catered for bikers from all over the world.
At Gator Harley, activites began at 9 a.m. with merchandise vendors, two full bars, a beer tub girl, food, a 10-class bike show put on by Full Throttle Magazine and live entertainment all day.
Ward said she and her husband, Joe Ward, started an event-specific tradition four years ago.
“We always do Gator Harley first. We ride one day, because we really enjoy riding through this whole area, then on Saturday we go to downtown Leesburg because it’s like the big party day,” Dianne said.
Jan Wideman, Gator Harley’s event and marketing manager, said the Thursday kickoff is also a tradition for them. The store also sponsors a Miss Bikefest contestant each year and the Gator Harley swamp, including the live entertainment and this year for the first time, dancing bartenders.
“We’ve always been part of Bikefest as the kickoff location and as an event sponsor,” Wideman said.
Wideman said it takes her 11 months to plan for Bikefest weekend, plus they hire extra help, stock extra merchandise and ready their warehouse for a parts and accessories, clothes and motorcycle blowout sale in anticipation of the hundreds of thousands of people expected in town.
This year, the shop is open two hours later each night, she said.
“We always look forward to this time of year. Downtown Leesburg is a one-stop shop for Bikefest, but so is Harley Davidson. We work with the Leesburg Partnership to make sure all our visitors have a variety of fun things to choose from the entire weekend,” she said.
John Malik, the store’s owner, said any Harley Davidson in any city hosting a biker event will attract people.
“Bikers who ride Harleys love coming to our stores,” Makick said.
On Friday, Gator Harley will offer the same things as Thursday, but with a few added attractions as more and more bikers arrive.
Included is an 11 a.m. “Run to the Wall,” escorted ride from Gator Harley to the Vietnam Traveling Memorial Wall in Eustis, with Lake County Sheriff’s Office deputies leading the way and the Strip Club Choppers’ World’s Sexiest Bagger Show.
Sunday will also feature an 8 a.m. church service and at noon, a bikini contest.
A different line-up of bands will be featured on stage each day through Sunday at Gator Harley and in downtown Leesburg.
For Joe Buttlieri and Pam Kettles from Leesburg, the two venues are a good mix, a sentiment seconded by Leesburg’s Adrian Carr, also at Gator Harley with his wife, Lois, Thursday.
“We go by the book and whoever has the best band or event at a certain time, we go there. When we want to get away from the big crowds in the downtown area at certain times, we come here,” Buttlieri said.
Kettles said at Gator Harley, they can browse vendor merchandise, but also shop inside the store where there is air conditioning.
Vendors say both locations result in good sales.
Christina Hadley, with PatchStop, out of Daytona Beach, said they have a spot at both locations the whole weekend.
“We do great at both places, but downtown is just open later,” Hadley said.
Stacy and Steven Reeves, with Big Cat Cycles, selling jewelry, shirts and accessories, said this was their first year at Gator Harley instead of downtown Leesburg.
“We’d done downtown Leesburg for three years and thought we’d try Gator Harley this time. We get an extra day here and it’s just a little more laid back,” Stacy said.
Mandy Wettstein, spokeswoman for the Leesburg Partnership, the event’s host, said the purpose of having attractions and vendors stretched out across 30 blocks in Leesburg is to make sure all visitors have plenty to do for their entire stay.
She said there are shuttles that can take them around or they can ride their bikes.
As for businesses, vendors and hotels, whether in downtown Leesburg, at Gator Harley, neighboring towns or even as far as three counties away, Bikefest is an “economic boom” for them, Wettstein said.
“People love all the venues with such a variety of things for them to do, the music and the rides with the beautiful scenery in between. That’s why it’s become the world’s largest 3-day bike and music festival,” Wettstein said.