PAWTUCKET — Just as one tiny snowflake can turn into something much bigger, so too has the Winter Wonderland festival grown. The annual event held in Slater Park is celebrating its 15th year, and its success appears to be ensured for many more years to come.
The 2013 Winter Wonderland festivities will begin on Dec. 7 at 3:45 p.m. Santa’s Parade will step off at 3:45 p.m. from Daggett Farm and march to the Looff Carousel. Once there, Santa Claus will make his appearance, along with Pawtucket Mayor Donald Grebien and his family, and other local officials and Winter Wonderland organizers. WJAR meteorologist Kelly Bates, the official Winter Wonderland Weatherwoman, will make her holiday forecasts for the upcoming weekends.
This year’s festival will take place on the weekends of Dec. 7 and 8 and Dec. 14 and 15. In addition to 435 illuminated Christmas trees, a Victorian Village and other holiday decorations, the historic Looff Carousel will be open, offering 25-cent rides and children’s crafts. There are also hayrides and two trains that will wind through the park, plus a food tent.
Santa and Mrs. Claus will be at the boathouse for free visits and/or holiday photos, and a heated entertainment tent will provide continual performances by local school groups, choruses, dance studios and musicians. Additionally, the historic Daggett House will be open for tours, and the Rhode Island Watercolor Society will have art on display in its gallery.
Dawn Goff, Winter Wonderland vice president, noted that the first Winter Wonderland was held back in 1999. It was spearheaded by two longtime city residents, Janice McHale and Jean Stizpek, who became inspired after experiencing a similar holiday festival while vacationing in California. With the city’s support and a small band of volunteers, Slater Park, usually dark and dormant in December, came alive for two weekends with decorated trees, an illuminated village and an extended run for the carousel.
Goff, who has been volunteering at the Winter Wonderland since its second year, marvels at the way it has been embraced by the community.
“We started with 100 trees. Now, we’re up to 435 trees, and we have a waiting list of 110 people going into 2014,” she noted.
The local business community, by sponsoring the wooden houses and storefronts that make up the village, has also been fully on board since the beginning. Goff said there is a waiting list for these as well. The Times is the proud sponsor of the 18-foot Talking Snowman at this year’s Winter Wonderland.
Goff notes that with growth comes complexity, and the Winter Wonderland Committee starts working on the next year’s event each February. “It’s a lot of work. Just testing all the lights...there are 435 trees each with three strands of lights that need to be checked.” She said a core group of volunteers will cram into the one heated office inside the vast storage building, where the wooden houses and decorations are kept, and test out each strand of lights in preparation for the coming year.
The popularity of the event can be best witnessed on “Tree Day,” the day when those who have sponsored a tree receive their designated tree location, dedication plaque and set of lights. This year’s Tree Day is Dec. 5 at 2 p.m.
“I call it ‘the running of the trees,’” jokes Goff. “Some people wait in line at 6:30 a.m., and we give out the plaques and lights at 2 p.m. “
Referring to the seasoned volunteers who handle this frenzied task, Goff said, “The girls have got it down. They move people through that line in about 20 minutes. But people still like to line up early.”
Another big task is the cleanup. Volunteers have to go around and collect the lights, which sponsors are supposed to leave in a bag under their tree, and also remove any leftover ornaments or decorations. Sponsors are responsible for putting up and taking down their own decorations, and are reminded to remove everything by Jan. 11. However, there are always those people who ignore the rules and leave the decorations behind. “We tell them, ‘take your decorations off or you won’t get a tree the next year,’” Goff said.
The event itself also requires numerous volunteers. People are needed to do everything from selling food and tickets to the hayrides and trains to assisting with children’s arts and crafts inside the carousel. Goff said that volunteers include a mix of local residents and retirees, as well as high school students who are fulfilling their community service requirements.
The Winter Wonderland festival is a nonprofit organization run entirely by volunteers in conjunction with the city. It has a board of directors, including president Bob Machowski Jr., who has been part of the event since its inception, and other longtime volunteers like Goff.
“I started out where all of the volunteers do...undecorating the trees, and I worked my way up,” she said.
Among several key supporters without whom the Winter Wonderland would not be possible is Jack Lund, of Lundco Painting, Goff said. Since day one, Lund has donated his time and labor to painting the wooden village buildings, and he returns each year to either touch them up or repaint them. Lund and his wife, Sharon, both sit on the Winter Wonderland board.
Goff also stresses the importance of the local business community in keeping the festival going. She noted that all proceeds are put back into the continued maintenance and operation of the event.
“We try to keep the prices of everything as low as possible,” Goff said. “Our goal is to have a family-oriented event that doesn’t cost a bunch of money to go to.” The prices of the hot dogs, hot chocolate and coffee are kept low, and the tickets to the hayride and train cost $2 for children and $3 for adults. There is no admission charge, and ample free parking is available.
Goff acknowledges that working outside in the winter weather can test even the hardiest of the volunteers. Still, there is a big group of people who return every year to lend a hand. “Everyone works for nothing. It’s just the love of the holiday and the love of the event,” she said.
Anyone who wishes to volunteer for next year or who wants information is asked to call (401) 726-3185 or email to email@example.com .