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‘Snow’ brings thousands downtown for festival

BRADENTON — It was cold, wet and white.

But thousands of people waited in line for at least an hour for a chance to slide down the 25 tons of shaved ice Saturday evening in downtown Bradenton.

The wait seemed worth it when children clutched plastic sleds shooting down the slopes with their faces lighting up.

“It’s very fun. Halfway down I turned around and went backwards. The girl at the bottom tried to catch me and fell over. It’s probably the funnest thing I’ve gone on,” said 10-year-old Emily Ralston, of Bradenton, who was all smiles.

This marks the 13th year of the Winter Wonderland Family Street Festival, which attracted an estimated 10,000 people.

The event, which is normally funded by business sponsorships, was endangered this year with the downturn of the economy, said Councilwoman Marianne Barneby, who organizes the event.

“The city and the Downtown Development Authority really made it happen,” she said. “The city council said especially in these times, with the struggling economy, to be able to provide a free form of entertainment for families was important.”

Barneby said she keeps organizing the event over the years because it has given children many memories of their hometown. “This is the baby I can’t take off my taxes,” she said smiling.

Children could go sliding, listen to Christmas music and visit Santa, who rode through Old Main Street on an antique red fire engine.

While the event has grown to include various vendors and attractions, the biggest draw remains the “snow,” Barneby said.

The first year the event was organized, Barneby said there was a small mound of snow several feet high that children used to slide down using trays. The slopes now feature staircases to climb to get to the top, and two small mounds for smaller children.

Cheryl Vafiades, a New England native and Bradenton resident, stood at the bottom of the slopes with her 7-year-old son, Vassor.

“Up north, it’s not so icy, it’s fluffy,” she explained to him. Vafiades came with her husband and son to the event for the first time.

“He wanted to see snow. He’s never seen it,” she said.

Vassor’s fingertips reached out, touching the small chunks of ice in his father’s hand.

“It’s cool,” he said. “It’s like ice.”

For many, it’s the closest they have come to seeing or touching snow.

“There’s a lot of kids that have never seen snow or had a chance to do sledding,” Barneby said. “It’s a fun family event.”