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Santa highlights “A Night Before Christmas” (with photo gallery)

BRADENTON -- ‘Twas 21 nights before Christmas and all through G.T. Bray Park screams could be heard as children waited for Santa Claus.

Their faces lit up as they looked to the sky Saturday afternoon, wondering when he would arrive.

“Is he ever coming?” Peyton Womack, 5, asked as he waited.

Just as Peyton began to give up hope, Santa appeared at 4 p.m., minus the reindeer, who stayed at home.

“That’s Santa! Santa Claus really is real,” said Peyton.

Santa’s helicopter arrival has been the kickoff to the “A Night Before Christmas” event for the past nine years.

When Peyton saw Santa he was ready with his request: a Thomas the Engine train.

And it wasn’t just the families that were looking forward to this year’s festivities.

“I’m having a wonderful time. It’s beautiful here,” Santa said. “I look forward to coming to Bradenton every year.”

As Santa spoke to children about their Christmas wishes he turned and said, “The kids in Bradenton are always good. They’re the best.”

Meanwhile Mrs. Claus was roaming about, passing out candy to hundreds who attended “A Night Before Christmas.”

“This is my favorite time of year. It’s nice to get out of the cold,” Mrs. Claus said.

Of course there was more to see than just St. Nick.

Before meeting the man in red, Olivia Castiglioni, 3, played in the snow, several tons of it that was imported for the event.

“My favorite is the snow. I made a snow angel and a snow man,” said Olivia. “I met Mrs. Claus and she gave me a candy cane. And I saw Santa land.”

For children such as Lili Gergov, 7, and Katia Gregov, 11, who recently moved from Colorado, the cookie decorating, bounce houses and bungee jumping were more appealing than the snow.

“We’re having a great time,” Katia said as she decorated a sugar cookie with red frosting.

And it wasn’t only children who had a blast at the event, parents were just as involved in the magic that Santa brings.

Peyton’s mom Amy Leahy said she teared up last year when she saw him land and the feeling of joy didn’t fade.

“I got just as excited to see him. It’s a fun event,” Leahy, 29, said.