Sometimes it’s hard to get into the Christmas spirit when you live in Florida. That’s why the people behind Winterfest are Pensacola’s own magical elves.
Winterfest has been transforming downtown Pensacola into a winter wonderland since 2004.
“It’s a neighborhood event that grew up,” said Winterfest coordinator Denise Daughtry.
The holiday event involves the whole downtown community. Those who live in downtown Pensacola feel more inclined to show their holiday spirit and the more houses that put up icicle lights, the merrier.
“Winterfest gets people to realize ‘Oh, it’s Christmas,’” said one of the actors Brandice Purvis. “When people downtown decorate their homes it really brings the community together.”
At Winterfest, all of your favorite holiday memories are captured in an hour-long trolley ride through downtown. The most popular stop is the “Polar Express.”
“It’s a beautiful, gorgeous set,” Daughtry said.
“The ‘Polar Express’ is done so well,” Purvis said. “The characters interact with the audience and you feel like a part of the set.”
And Christmas without Elvis would most certainly be blue.
“Elvis is always an essential,” Daughtry said.
However, Christmas isn’t about presents, gingerbread houses or even trolley rides, and no one knows that more than Nanette Dawson, who plays the angel in the nativity scene. Dawson has had a rough year, but for her Winterfest is about being grateful for what little she has.
“It really did a lot for me spiritually,” Dawson said of Winterfest. “I’ve gone through homelessness, I lost everything, but there will always be someone out there who has it worse than I do. I’ve learned to be grateful and keep the faith. I’ve also met some awesome people.”
The oil spill is no longer front-page news, but the effects of the spill are still hurting the area. However, Pensacola still has a lot to be grateful for. Dressing up the downtown area and spreading holiday cheer is even more important this Christmas.
“We thought we were going to be doomed,” Purvis said. “To see the spill getting cleaned up is great, but we still need something to take our minds off of what happened.”
“I grew up in Pensacola,” said Dawson, who is a BP oil worker. “It’s nice to see another side of it. Winterfest is a family-oriented, cultural event. It gives a brighter outlook in a gloomy time.”
Like the New Year’s Eve Pelican Drop, Winterfest is a great opportunity to get people downtown.
“We want to bring people downtown,” Daughtry said. “It makes it a better place. No one can argue that Santa wouldn’t make downtown a happier place.”
The true spirit of Christmas was also put to good use when ABC’s “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” came to Pensacola. Winterfest actors donated their time and talent and some of the props were used in the episode which airs on ABC Sunday, Dec. 12.
The first night for the performance trolley tour is Friday, Nov. 26 from 6-8:30 p.m. The tour will run Saturday, Dec. 4, Friday, Dec. 10, and Friday, Dec. 17 until Sunday, Dec. 19. Tours are from 5 p.m. until 8:30 p.m. with the exception of Friday, Dec. 10 and 17 when the tours begin at 5:30 p.m. Tickets are $18 for adults and $12 for children 10 years old and under. If you’ve already dipped too low into your Christmas savings, you could take a walking tour at half the price, called “Santa’s Express,” which is a condensed 30-minute tour, or just enjoy the decorations and performances in the plaza for free.
It takes two weeks to set up the winter wonderland illusion, but Winterfest is planned throughout the year. Daughtry and her crew of volunteer elves spend countless hours on sets and costumes. If a store-bought item is not up to par with Winterfest standards, the trusty elves get to work.
“This year we’re doing a Christmas tree, but the ornaments I found online were not good enough, so we’re making our own,” Daughtry said. “The elves are always working.”
One thing that cannot be perfected is the snow, but fake snow is still better than none at all.
“Fake snow is really difficult because it doesn’t last,” Daughtry said. “There’s no such thing as fake real snow. I’ll just stick with the illusion.”
Winterfest is not only great because it’s a one-of-a-kind event, but it brings everyone in Pensacola together.
“To watch faces light up from something as simple as shaking Rudolph’s hand is amazing,” Purvis said. “I love it.”
“We want to evoke the feeling of nostalgia,” Daughtry said. “We always think yesterday was better than today; we want people to remember the good times.”
WHEN: Trolley Tours: 6-8:30 p.m. Nov. 26, 5-8:30 p.m. Dec. 4, 5:30-8:30 p.m. Dec.10, 5:30-8:30 p.m. Dec.17, 5:30-8:30 p.m. Dec.18, and 5:30-8:30 p.m. Dec. 19; Walking Tours are the same dates at 6, 7, and 8 p.m.; Santa’s Express Tours are held from 5:30-8:30 p.m. Dec. 21, 22, 23
WHERE: 330 S. Jefferson St.
COST: Trolley Tours are $18 for adults, and $12 for children 10 years old and under; Walking Tours are $9 for adults, and $5 for children 10 years old and under; Santa’s Express Tours are $10 for adults, and $6 for children 10 years old and under
DETAILS: pensacolawinterfest.org, or 417-7321