EAST MANATEE -- On a balmy, nearly 80-degree Christmas Eve, a steep heap of snow sat on the grounds of Bayside Community Church.
Yes, you read right.
The church organized its first “Family Christmas Spectacular” this year, which included a Christmas service, a live nativity scene (including two camels), a petting zoo, and pony and train rides.
But the biggest attraction: the snow hill.
“That’s kind of our main event over there,” said Kristin Becnel, the church’s creative and communications coordinator. “The kids are having a blast.”
Gregg Ellery, the church’s director of events, said 25 tons of snow in total were brought to the church in truckloads for the event, which took place from Wednesday through Saturday at 15800 State Road 64 East.
The hill of snow was about 55 feet long and 15 feet tall, Ellery said, adding that about 10,000 people attended the four-day event. “It’s been huge,” he said.
Ellery said the event was promoted through Facebook, Twitter, the church’s website, and 7,200 flyers that were distributed at about a dozen elementary schools.
Becnel said she took a ride down the hill herself. “We had to test it out,” she said, laughing.
Kids ages 3 to 18 were allowed to take rides down the snow hill. A much smaller snow pile was also available for toddlers ages 3 and under.
“School’s out and people are looking for stuff to do,” Becnel said.
During the event, people also had the chance to donate to the Food Bank of Manatee. About 2,200 pounds of food were donated.
Inside the church, four Christmas trees adorned the entrance area, where families posed for free Christmas portraits and munched on cookies and hot chocolate.
After the Christmas service, led by pastor Randy Bezet, dozens of youngsters dashed to form a line at the base of the snow pile. One by one, in orange and green discs, they slid down the hill. Reactions varied: many smiled, others laughed, and some burst out in tears.
“It was bumpy,” said 10-year-old Delaney Forbes, adding that she wasn’t scared one bit.
As the kids made their way down the slope, parents stood at the end snapping photos and filming video.
Logan Sweeney, 10, rode down the hill twice. “It was really fun,” he said.
His mom, Jen Sweeney, said she brought her kids because they haven’t seen snow. She said she will send the photos she took of them sliding down the hill to loved ones in Wisconsin.
“The only snow in Florida comes in bags,” Logan added.
Taylor Folkers, 7, had lots to say about her snow ride. “I loved it because it was so fast... it squirts out at you, so it’s so funny,” she explained.
Joe Rodriguez, the bass player for Bayside’s band, said his 7-year-old daughter, Alexia, never saw snow before. When she plunged down the hill, she’d get up and walk back to the end of the line.
Rodriguez said she had slid down the hill about five or six times.
“I think I lost count,” he said.