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Lakewood Ranch celebrates its first 20 years with crazy bubbles

LAKEWOOD RANCH -- Developer Schroeder-Manatee Ranch went big in the party it threw Friday night to celebrate the first 20 years of Lakewood Ranch as a community now home to 25,000 residents.

The cushy, carpet-like sod of sprawling Premier Sports Campus was the perfect setting for thousands of folks who spread blankets or brought lawn chairs to watch and listen to the band Koko Ray and the Keepers, to sample the food and drink and to let their children run free.

For the children, bubble soccer balls were a hit. Youngsters tunneled into the big bubbles and went rolling head over heels into the night.

Sarah and Richard Dirden brought their 2-year-old son James to enjoy the festivities.

Their priorities? "Seeing the fireworks, and eating the gourmet grilled chicken wings," Richard Dirden said.

Don O'Leary, a resident since 1997, is often referred to as the unofficial mayor of Lakewood Ranch.

"It's unbelievable," O'Leary said of the changes he has seen.

"We have been here almost 20 years and we're still happy," O'Leary said.

Manatee County Commissioner Betsy Benac came, too, and reflected when she was an assistant planner when the Lakewood Ranch project was introduced.

"They saw the possibilities," Benac said of the developer. "It's amazing how it was built from how it was first envisioned."

SMR partnered with Meals on Wheels Plus to collect food and money to help the food bank fill its pantry to feed Manatee County's hungry.

Judi Bjork, general manager of Renaissance on 9th, said she was happy with the donations.

"We're trying to collect 10 million pennies. I am confident we will do it," she said.

Just then, a donor walked up and dropped $30 cash into collection jar.

"That's 30,000 pennies," she said, quickly doing the math in her head.

In the week before the anniversary party, Rachel Gray, SMR events and promotions coordinator, said the party would be a family friendly event.

And from the first "happy anniversary greeting" from Koko Ray and the Keepers to all the fun with pumpkin decorating, and those crazy bubble soccer inflatables, it was.

James A. Jones Jr., East Manatee reporter, can be contacted at 941-745-7053 or Twitter @jajones1.