By LINDA CHION KENNEY
This year’s draw to Tampa Bay’s Festival of Lights and Santa’s Village can be summed up in an impromptu seasonal ditty, “candy creation, reindeer food station, hayrides and barnyard, lights, sights and ‘smores.”
In a nutshell, family-friendly sights and activities are the draw to the annual, multi-day festival that kicked off for Thanksgiving and runs through the day after Christmas at the Hillsborough County Fairgrounds in Dover.
“We were here when she was one year old, and now we’re back and it’s bigger,” said David Kohut, at the festival with his six-year-old daughter, Maia, who had just created a snowflake ornament of her own. “She’s having a blast,” Kohut said.
“I painted it white, and I added glitter on it,” said Maia, about the artwork she planned to hang on her recently acquired “Elf on the Shelf” at home. “I like that I made some parts have a lot of glitter and some parts don’t.”
Featuring a nearly 2-mile drive-through of lights, the festival ends its run Sunday, Jan. 2. The cost to attend is $25 per vehicle carrying up to eight people.
Outside the car and inside Santa’s Workshop in Santa’s Village, attendees pay for some activities, which overall include arts and crafts and an opportunity to take a picture with Mr. and Mrs. Santa Claus, before or after a visit to the face-painting station. The cost for a tractor-pulled hayride to view the lights from a different perspective costs $2 per passenger.
Laura Palacio was in the village with her 4-year-old daughter, Zara Sofia, who said, “The paint is really cool,” about the brightly colored hand-painted butterfly on her face.
“It’s very family friendly,” Palacio said about the event overall. “I adored the lights and being able to see Santa and the face-painting. There’s just so many activities.”
Outside the workshop, attendees toasted marshmallows for their ‘smores, and food stations offered a variety of treats and drinks, including buttermilk corn dogs, bubble waffle ice cream, apple cider (cold and hot), hot chocolate, coffee, kettle corn, cookies, cupcakes, candy canes, tacos, kebabs, nachos and street corn.
Along with an outdoor seating area to watch holiday movies and shorts, offerings include a small animal petting zoo, a track for riding camels and other games and activities, including cornhole tosses. Backdrop walls with seasonal graphics beckon attendees to snap photo keepsakes of their own or to share on social media channels.
That’s where Sione, Vernonica, Nathaly and Nallely posed for a photo shoot by Anita Gomes, a physical education teacher at Immanuel Lutheran Church school in Brandon.
Veronica said she liked best the petting zoo; Sione and Nallely, the camel ride; and Nathaly, the food. As for Anita Gomes, “I like that I’m able to bring the kids, and they can enjoy themselves.”
As for the lights themselves, the seasonal and native themes include Santa Claus, elves, angels, Christmas trees, wrapped presents and candles, along with alligators, crocodiles, starfish, dolphins and golf.
Billed as a light show “designed to appeal to all ages and backgrounds” and themed to “Florida and traditional winter holidays, representing Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and more,” the display is provided by Brandano Displays Inc., known nationally for its community holiday display events.
Santa’s Village as well is blanketed in light, with reportedly more than 3,000 feet of lights on buildings and 500 animated dripping lights on trees.
The Festival of Lights and Santa’s Village kicked off Nov. 25 and runs through Sunday, Jan. 2. Hours are 6 to 10 p.m. at the Hillsborough County Fairgrounds in Dover, at 215 Sydney Washer Road. The cost is $25 per vehicle holding up to eight people. Purchase tickets online at www.hillsboroughcountyfair.com/.