BRADENTON -- Taking a break from the North Pole's snow and cold, Santa Claus was greeted by cheerful kids on a sunny and warm afternoon at G.T. Bray park during the 11th annual "A Night Before Christmas."
Filling the baseball bleachers, kids cheered, waved, pointed and squealed as Santa Claus' helicopter circled overhead, landing in left field.
"Everyone loves seeing Santa Claus arrive in a helicopter because it's unique," said Bridget Frattallone, who coordinated the Manatee County Parks and Recreation event. "Of course he has to do that because he's letting his reindeer rest."
Mrs. Claus and an elf greeted Santa, walking him to his sleigh where a line of children waited anxiously to share their Christmas lists and assure him they have been nice, and not naughty.
Raeanne Fath, 9, was first in line.
Raeanne said she has been good this year and asked for an iPhone 5 and Xbox 360, garnering laughs from her mother, Sandy.
"It's something fun we come and do every year," Sandy Fath said. "It's something that has become a tradition that we just can't miss."
The event started about 20 years ago as "Winter Won
derland" and has progressed into "A Night Before Christmas" where kids enjoy bounce houses, cookie decorating, power jumping and carnival games. Frattallone thanked sponsors, volunteers and organizations.
"This event has grown tremendously from that to this," said Frattallone, who expected between 2,000 and 2,500 people. "I know it's a tradition when I hear people who say, 'my family comes every year.'"
Sherry Armstrong is one of those people.
"We've come every year for about four years," she said. "The kids look forward to it."
"I'm going to ask for Gak (a squeezable putty)," said Alicia Niekrenz, 9, who had her nose painted red with antlers above her eyebrows. "So far my favorite part would be getting my face painted."
Joshua Armstrong, 3, had a white beard on his chin and a Santa Claus hat painted on his forehead.
"And a race track. That's it, I think," he added.
A line to play in the "snow mound" was nearly as long as Santa's queue of fans.
"The snow is the coolest thing for the kids from Florida," Frattallone said. "For a lot of the kids, this is their only experience with snow."
Children, many in shorts and sandals, slipped and slid on the icy surface as snow machines created flurries.
"Oh my gosh, it's freezing cold," said Landon Holmes, 7, when he placed his hands in the ice.
"This is terrific and the cost is very reasonable for a family," said Belinda Holmes, who was told by her mother about the event. "It feels like the holidays, or at least as close as you can get in Florida."
Elizabeth Johnson, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7041. Follow her on Twitter @EJohnsonBHcrime.