Not long after the Thanksgiving decorations are taken down, Santa Claus makes one of his first appearances in the Fort Myers area, kicking off the Christmas season at Holiday in the Park.
This annual event takes place on December 1 at Riverside Park in Bonita Springs. A truly unique, hometown celebration, visitors start jockeying for position – spreading their blankets and placing chairs on the grass in front of the park's bandshell as early as 4:00 pm.
The Bonita Village Band kicks off the show every year — Photo courtesy of Gina Birch
As custom has it, the Bonita Village Band opens the show. Taking on the mummers' tradition of elaborate costumes and dancing through the crowd at times, this band is made up of retirees.
To them, the privilege is given of playing "Jingle Bells" as the welcome anthem for Santa and Mrs. Claus. The honored guests arrive promptly at 5:00 pm, in a horse-drawn carriage, preceded by a parade of fire trucks and cool cars from the local Corvette club.
After briefly greeting the crowd, Santa gets right to work as there'ss a long line of children each year, patiently waiting to sit on his lap and receive a toy. One of the more charming aspects of Holiday in the Park is that every child who visits Santa leaves with a toy, graciously donated by local businesses and the Lee County Sheriff’s Department.
You'll get a good feel for the community as the evening rolls on with a variety of entertainment from college jazz bands, high school concert bands, choral groups, dancers and more.
A close second to Santa’s arrival is the lighting of the Christmas tree. City leaders gather on stage to rouse the crowd and flip a giant switch, igniting twinkling lights on a real Douglas fir or similar tree. Simultaneously, fake snow shoots from tall stands throughout the park, giving the appearance of a winter wonderland, even if visitors are wearing shorts.
Thousands fill the park to see the lighting of the Christmas tree and watch it snow — Photo courtesy of Gina Birch
The wintry ruse continues behind the stage where a giant snow pile and an ice slide are set up for kids of all ages. The horse and carriage that Santa arrived in goes back into action, offering short rides around the park. There's also a train ride, both at no charge.
You can't have an event welcoming Santa without cookies and apple cider, so volunteers serve them for free at this feel-good festival. For more substantial food, vendors are found around the perimeter of the park so you can truly camp out here for hours.
Embracing all cultures, organizers also display a lighted menorah to commemorate Hanukkah.
A favorite celebration for locals, always welcoming visitors, this event is full of family fun; a heartwarming way to welcome the holiday season.