One of the most anticipated and popular Fiesta celebrations, the annual Celebración de Los Dignatarios, once again succeeded in drawing a large crowd — more than 1,500 people — to the Santa Barbara Zoo on Thursday evening.

Guests were greeted with a hearty welcome from Old Spanish Days Fiesta Flower Girls as the procession of excited attendees made their way past the main entrance.

Adorned in white ruffled blouses and colorful flowing skirts, the 28 Fiesta Flower Girls stood beaming as they handed out flowers to incoming guests and cheered, “Viva la Fiesta!”

A setting sun cast golden rays upon the assemblage of palm and oak trees lining the walkway that coils around an array of gift shops and animal exhibits.

The celebration commenced on the hilltop, which offered guests spectacular panoramic views of the Santa Ynez Mountains and the Pacific Ocean.

Some partygoers arrived clad in traditional Spanish attire while others dressed in more casual summer dresses, jeans and shorts. Mingling on the zoo lawn, guests sipped beverages and sampled a variety of delicious foods offered at decorative concession stands from 25 local restaurants and caterers with seven Central Coast wineries.

Santa Barbara Elks Lodge member Debora Petlow said the club’s famous tri-tip sandwiches are a crowd favorite.

“We are known for our mind-blowing tri-tip sandwiches,” said Petlow. “So many people made repeated trips to our stand and we were sold out by 6:30 p.m.”

But, if folks missed out on the tri-tip, there were still plenty of other tasty dishes to go around, including seared shrimp on sugar skewers with passion fruit pesto and Mexican wedding cookies from Rincon Catering & Beach Club. And there was something tantalizing on hand to tame everyone’s pallet, like chocolate-covered strawberries and brownies dusted with powdered sugar provided by Albertsons, plus mouth-watering margarita-flavored cupcakes by Crushcakes & Café.

The masters of ceremonies, Paula Lopez and K-Lite radio host Bill Pesso, welcomed guests and dignatarios to the celebration and 2011 La Presidenta Joanne Funari paid a special tribute to the community of Santa Barbara and local fire and law enforcement agencies.

Santa Barbara Mayor Helene Schneider also addressed the festive crowd, thanking the vendors, zoo personnel and Old Spanish Days board members and other representatives.

“I really appreciate the community coming together to make this event a success,” she said.

Zoo director Nancy McToldridge, who has been employed at the Santa Barbara Zoo for 29 years, said the annual event has been hosted at the zoo for approximately 20 years and each year the celebration continues to evolve and grow.

“This is one of the most unique events in Santa Barbara, let alone for Fiesta,” said McToldridge. “Because it’s a joint fundraiser and collaboration between Old Spanish Days and the Santa Barbara Zoo.”

The celebration continued under the shimmering orange, blue and violet hues of twilight as 2011’s Spirit of Fiesta Marisa Leon-Haro and Junior Spirit of Fiesta Anais Crespo-Peña performed in front of an enthusiastic crowed of onlookers wearing glorious white gowns.

By nightfall, the dance floor was packed elbow-to-elbow as guests danced through the evening to the soulful sounds of the Soul City Survivors.

“The zoo is very pleased to work with such great partners as Old Spanish Days,” said McToldridge. “We put on the most fantastic celebration every year, and the zoo touches about every person who lives in Santa Barbara.”

McToldridge estimated that approximately $60,000 to $70,000 in proceeds from tickets and bar sales will be shared between the zoo and Old Spanish Days.

Old Spanish Days and the Santa Barbara Zoo thank the following sponsors for their generous support:

» Titanium sponsors: Fess Parker’s DoubleTree Resort, Jordano’s, Impulse, Cox Communications, Albertsons, KEYT and MarBorg Industries.

» Platinum sponsors: Paseo Nuevo / La Cumbre Plaza and the Brittingham Family Foundation.

» Gold sponsors: Bartlett, Pringle & Wolf, Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians, Wells Fargo, Business First Bank, Montecito Bank & Trust, Tres Agaves and Luners Pro Sound & Lighting.

» Silver sponsors: Noozhawk, Dipaola Foundation, Pacific Beverage Co., Brown & Brown, the Santa Barbara Independent, the Santa Barbara News-Press, Bank of America, CASA Magazine, the Daily Sound, EventRents,, FLIR Systems Inc., ServiceMaster and Rincon Broadcasting.

» Bronze sponsors: Cumulus Media, Deckers Outdoor Corp., Rayne Water, Florabundance, Santa Barbara County Flower & Nursery Growers,, Univision and Santa Barbara Seasons.

Noozhawk iSociety columnist Melissa Walker can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkSociety, @NoozhawkNews, and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

Noozhawk iSociety columnist Melissa Walker can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.