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MERRITT ISLAND — By noon Sunday, more than 5,000 bikers — some wearing red Santa caps, felt reindeer antlers and sexy-elf costumes — had overtaken the sprawling Merritt Square Mall parking lot.
Then, with exhaust pipes rumbling, the 30th annual ABATE of Florida toy run kicked off, converting State Road 520 and U.S. 1 into a multihour motorcycle parade.
Participants donated children’s toys and cash to Shriners Hospital for Children and other local charities at the rally’s destination, Wickham Park Pavilion in Melbourne.
“It’s amazing. Bikers in past years have kind of had a bad rap — Hell’s Angels and all,” said NASCAR legend and Melbourne motorcycle dealer Geoff Bodine, who rode a black Honda Interstate during the rally.
“But this shows that bikers are good, caring, giving people,” Bodine said.
The toy run generated enough Christmas toys to fill four 26-foot, U-Haul moving trucks, said Mike Pope, president of the ABATE of Florida Brevard County chapter. He said 5,225 motorcycles participated.
“Everyone was real generous and giving in a bad economy,” Pope said.
The rally debuted in 1981. That April, Columbia launched from Kennedy Space Center. Fittingly, the logo for Sunday’s event featured Santa Claus sporting sunglasses and sitting atop an orbiter.
Veteran motorcyclists Darleen Keesee and Jim Irvine of Cocoa Beach called the toy run the largest such event in Central Florida. Keesee decorated Irvine’s red 2002 Harley-Davidson Wide Glide with silver tinsel, red bows and candy canes.
They also stuffed six boxed children’s toys into their black saddlebag.
“It’s all about the kids,” Irvine said.
Merritt Island residents Peter and Jennifer Tatro donated a Crayola Color Twister and a golden teddy bear, which was strapped to the back of their 1993 Harley-Davidson Heritage Softail. They also hung out with neighbor Jessica Dalrymple, a Manatee Elementary sixth-grader attending her fourth toy run.
“Tremendous turnout. Really well-organized,” Jennifer Tatro said.