BRADENTON -- Santa, Mrs. Claus and snow all made an appearance in downtown Bradenton Saturday night for the 17th annual Winter Wonderland.
Kids waited in line for a chance to sled down Snow Mountain. They held on tight, positioning themselves in the discs. Some looked frightened, some smiled and others squealed as they slid down the icy ramp into the arms of local JROTC students.
"I want to do it again," one girl told her mother.
Another boy said, "Whoa, whoa, whoa," all the way down the slope.
Kids rubbed their hands for warmth while others shook ice from their shoes.
"It was scary," said Aracely Alcantar, 10, who experienced sledding for the first time. "I thought it was really fun."
Snow Mountain opened at 5 p.m., but the line started to form about 30 minutes early.
"It's a people magnet," said Marianne Barnebey, Bradenton councilwoman and chair of the event. "Most of the kids are born and raised here. They've never seen snow or had an opportunity to sled, so we came up with our own version in downtown Bradenton."
When Barnebey planned the inaugural event 17 years ago, many people thought no one would attend.
"They told me I was crazy. We planned for 800 and 2,000 showed up," she said, estimating 8,000 to 10,000 participated Saturday. "The event has grown. There were people who came down the first year who are bringing their children now."
Stephanie Morgan was one of five adults of her family who brought 11 children for their first time at the event.
"I try to do as much as I can when I have my weekends off with my kids," Morgan said. "This is the closest we'll get to snow. It's just a nice time to mingle and get the kids out of the house and have fun."
All of the kids enjoyed digging for fossils at a Mosaic booth, but Jada Anderson, 8, said sledding was the most fun.
"I fell off," she added with a laugh.
Four girls brought by their grandmother highlighted different favorites.
"Ornament decorating," said Brianna, 12.
"Face painting," added Trinity, 8, who had Rudolph on her cheek.
"Sliding," shouted Paige, 7, referring to the snow.
Arianna, 4, was too bashful to share.
The activities closed down Old Main Street, where local artists and dance teams took center stage. Local businesses and vendors offered food, crafts and gift items.
"Most events on Old Main Street are done as fundraisers for different organizations, but this is just about promoting downtown and downtown businesses," Barnebey said.
Hayrides carried people down Barrcarrota Boulevard for Christmas light viewing. Even Santa's workshop migrated south for the night.
"Santa and Mrs. Claus have a special place in their hearts for Bradenton," Barnebey said. "It's a busy time of year, but they always give a few hours for the kids of Bradenton they love so much."
Crowds moved toward the Manatee River to watch the Bradenton Yacht Club's 15th Annual Holiday Boat Parade, where 26 vessels decked in lights and decorations floated past the Riverwalk, down to Tarpon Pointe and back.
"Basically everyone works on the boats all week sticking to the holiday theme," said Aimee Blenker, parade chairwoman.
Cash and gift cards were awarded to vessels with the best decorations. Boats were judged by a panel made up of Bradenton Mayor Wayne Poston, Palmetto Mayor Shirley Groover Bryant, Palmetto Police Chief Rick Wells, Bradenton Herald columnist Vin Mannix and Grady Thorton who provided land for parking.
Winners of the boats measuring less than 30 feet were Snowman, Dragon and Sea Snake. For 31 feet to 39 feet: Nanny, Q's Cabin, Sick Daze. For more than 40 feet: Esconditas, Liquid Assets and Gull Wing. Blu Que Grill won the corporate division. Special awards went to Nanny for the most lights, Snowman for best theme boat and Sick Daze for most creative.
The night ended with a firework show over the river.
"We had a record-breaking crowd this year," said Leah Brown, event spokeswoman. "It's never been this big. It's all very exciting. This is such a fun-spirited event that really engages those who attend and reminds them the holidays are about hanging out with family and friends."
Elizabeth Johnson, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7041. Follow her on Twitter@EJohnsonBHcrime.