Celebrators showed up in the wee hours of Sunday morning to lay out blankets and claim a spot for an afternoon of fun, getting a jump on the crowds that flock to northeast Fresno's Woodward Park each year to observe Easter.
Dennis Valdivia, 51, woke up at 4:15 a.m. to get his gear together for a barbecue with family and friends. Carrying a Styrofoam chest packed with soda cans and water bottles, Valdivia trudged across the green lawn littered with candy foils and pink cellophane grass, leftovers from early morning egg hunts.
It was a special day for many, including Valdivia, who said Easter Sunday is one of the only times he sees extended family each year.
"We haven't seen our family in a long time and we probably won't see them all for another year," he said. "Times are different, people work weekends and all that."
Throngs of people searched for their own empty patch of grass to play horseshoe, fire up the grill or lay down a picnic blanket. Many set up tents and hung hammocks between trees to find shade from the warm afternoon sun. Parents rolled up pant legs to wade and cool off in a small creek with their kids.
By 1:30 p.m., all of the park's 4,000 car spaces were full; an overflow lot filled up by 2 p.m., when park staff began turning cars away to find parking elsewhere. Drivers fit their cars and trucks into makeshift spots along N. Friant Road while others trekked from business park lots down the road.
Alvin Areizaga and 35 of his friends and relatives met at the park after church to continue celebrating. Areizaga's mother skipped services to find a spot before 7 a.m. for the big party.
"We planned ahead," Areizaga, 35, said. "She said there were still tables in certain spots we'd been at before that were already taken, so there were already some people here that early too."
By lunchtime, smoky scents of barbecued chicken and spare ribs wafted across the park.
Michael Abdullah, 28, and his friends were one of several groups that hauled full-size gas grills for their cookout.
Other families kept their festivities low-key: Crystal Ojeda, 30, and her three children snacked on sandwich roll-ups and store-bought cake to celebrate. They arrived around 1 p.m. and were some of the last few to find a parking spot.
"We didn't think it was going to be this packed," she said.
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