Part Carnival Parade (in the South American sense), part environmental awareness campaign, part folk art festival, part sculpture show, and part costume party, the annual Procession of the Species is only part of a long event surrounding environmental education and awareness.
The most well known of the events is the Saturday evening procession, but there are some seven weeks of events that start the effort. People learn about artistic ways of expression (perhaps dance, perhaps juggling, perhaps some other thing) and learn about various environmental issues, and on the procession days (there are two) they take to the streets.
Two procession days? Yes! On Friday night before the big procession, there is a "luminary procession" that is fairly late at night - starting sometime around 9 pm or 9:30 or so.
The big procession itself happens on Saturday, and pretty much shuts down downtown Olympia for the day. It is one of the biggest events that happens in this community, and parking is impossible within a mile of town (park in Tumwater and walk, or take the bus).
Now, understand that the parade isn't really a parade exactly. A parade is usually highly organized, but the Procession of the Species is intended to be far more spontaneous, and the lines between those that participate and those that observe is somewhat more blurred than what you may find elsewhere. There is a reason why they have chosen to call this a Procession rather than a Parade. Furthermore, sometimes there may be spontaneous performances by those that participate in one particular location, which means the entire thing does not move at a very set pace. Therefore, be prepared for the schedule to be more of a suggestion than a rule. These days there is a set route, but you can find the route pretty easily because there will be crowds positioned all along it.
Sometime before the start of the procession, a set of carts goes through the route. Some of these are used to collect trash, others are used to collect donations, and others are used to distribute chalk so that those who observe can at least participate by expressing themselves in drawings on the road over which the procession runs.
Those that ride the route on skateboards dressed in animal costumes may run the length of the procession several times - there is no official rules saying they can't do this - it isn't exactly a set order of appearance like an organized parade would be.
Those that go through the course may be quite a variety. There will be children in home made costumes that are hard to determine what they represent, some costumes that contain commercial parts, and by far the most spectacular are the giant puppets which in the case of, for example, a giraffe might require some 20 people to control. Sometimes the animals are simple (or very complex!) sculptures that are positioned on carts or wheels, and rolled through the procession route.
For an example of one of the more complex sculptures / puppets, and certainly a favorite of mine, see my Travelogue of the Giant Giraffe that appeared in the 2013 procession.
Some of them are a little hard to figure out unless they are viewed in context with surrounding animals or part of a moving street theatre which may or may not be completely seen. See photo 5 for one such sculpture and costume - how exactly does that fit with the procession of the species?
One thing that is common: there are no motorized floats or vehicles of any sort. It is all human powered.
There are other cities that have Procession of the Species events (Albany, Oregon and Bellingham, Washington among them) but the way Olympia orients itself around the procession and turns itself into an environmentalist community for this event is a bit unique.
Coffee, that is. Olympia is home to Batdorf & Bronson Coffee Roasters. While that big, green "other coffee company" may have put specialty coffee on the map, B&B is where it's at, whether you're in Olympia or elsewhere. If you're in town, stop at the retail store or head down to the tasting room at the roastery, next door to the Olympia Farmer's Market. If you're out of town or even out of state, you can still contact B&B to find out where their coffee is brewed up daily - you'd be amazed where you'll find B&B. Or you can visit their website and order some for your own consumption.
Prepare to get your brew on - this coffee is the shiznit!
Do not be judgemental about anything. Tolerance is the golden virtue in Olympia. I've seen people get in serious trouble by making fun of gays, women, or minorities. The goal is to remember that we are all people and we must live together.
Also, don't take anybody at face value. A lot of people wearing grungy clothes are very hygenic. A lot of people wearing suits are not. Everybody is worth meeting once, and you're sure to make friends quickly.