The Fair season begins in the warmer states sometime in January, peaks of course during the Summer in the most populous states and winds down by Thanksgiving, leaving December as a month where most carnival companies go on vacation, enjoy the holidays and regroup for the season ahead.
Since 2008, James E. Strates Shows has found a profitable layover with a Santa's Winter Wonderland Village at Waterford Lakes Town Center in Orlando, Florida, a holiday gig that runs through the month of December that has brought the carnival a long-term holiday gig that has grown every year. The event was the brainchild of George H. Weston Jr, General Manager, Strates Shows, Inc., who credits the company he has worked for nearly 40 years encouraging him to think outside the box.
always put on Spring Dates and did fairs up and down the east coast, and I always wanted to do a Christmas event," he said.
Like most carnival companies, Strates Shows was dark, so Santa's Winter Wonderland Village might not generate the revenue of some of the large fairs where attendance numbers in the hundreds of thousands, but with the company headquarters in the same town as the center, the Wonderland was a way to have equipment generate revenue instead allowing it to lie fallow.
The other factor that fell into place was a new shopping trend in American society. Enclosed malls with anchor stores have given away to Lifestyle Centers - which are mixed used commercial properties that incorporate large and smaller stores, as well as a Cineplex , several restaurants and other business. Unlike an enclosed mall, what these complexes lack is a place for kids to make their annual visit to Santa Claus.
"Every mall does Christmas, and every year new parents bring their kids to have their picture taken with Santa," he explained. "But the lifestyle centers had never figured out a way to bring Christmas to the center."
A midway company with its amusement rides, games and concession foods may symbolize Summer for fairgoers, but trying to embody the annual yuletide celebrations seems a pretty far bridge to cross. Weston is reluctant to tell all the details. The Santa's Winter Wonderland Village is considered by many one of the most successful of the Christmas-themed events in the fair industry, and Weston said that he gets more calls every year from carnival companies and retail complexes looking to find a similar gig to escape the December downtime syndrome. "The fair industry has gotten very competitive," he said. "Strates has spent eight years developing a Christmas-themed event and I want to protect that formula."
But Weston was willing to discuss a few general points in that formula, the main one being to think outside the box. Weston emphasizes Santa's Winter Wonderland Village is not a fair and carnival companies need to change their mindset to make it work. "Carnival companies must get the fair thing out of their minds, which is why they may not succeed at a Christmas event," he said. "It is not laid out like a midway, it is laid out like a theme park."
The theme of course is Christmas, so the main expenses are elaborate Christmas displays, with about 200 extension chords. Santa Claus is the main star, of course - "we have a Macy's trained Santa Claus," boasted Weston. In addition, there's a Santa's Workshop and Elf Station, Frosty the Snowman, Rudolph and even the green-faced Grinch, often played by Weston himself. As might be expected, the majority of attendees are young families, but also young adults and teenagers have gotten in on the fun, "they love to have their picture taken with the Grinch."
In fact, the Grinch character has become a live meme beloved by attendees who return year after year. Wonderland employees wear Santa hats, and can decide between red hats for Santa, and green for the ultimate Scrooge. Weston said that more employees wear the green hats - which may or may not be a way to curry favor with the boss - but the hat alliance boosts employ morale and brings attendees in on the joke. Besides, by Christmas day the Grinch changes his tune and brings the toys back to the children.
Photo taking is a key incentive to building attendance. What could be more picturesque than a Christmas setting. In fact, this year they added a program "Claus and Paws at Santa's Winter Wonderland Village" - with a special section of Santa's Workshop which Weston said "really took off this year."
One of the earliest realizations of how to more effectively hold this event - also differentiating it from a typical fair - has to do with marketing, and the emergence of selfie culture. "I do no marketing for the wonderland," he explained.
Social Media Non-Marketing
Back in 2008, when he was able to get sponsors, such as Home Depot, one of the retailers in the complex, to sponsor the $150,000 bill for lights and Christmas displays, Weston had advertising, including television and newspapers. The marketing worked, crowds turned out. Unfortunately, this turnout also caused a flurry of complaints about parking.
Santa's Winter Wonderland Village is set up in a portion of the parking lot, and the incentive for the center is to bring in potential shoppers, but apparently marketing the event seems to give it too high a profile. Weston immediately cancelled the advertising, but he noticed something else.
2008, year-one for the event, was a turning point for the convergence of technologies - improved smart phones and increased popularity of social media. While a TV ad seems to encourage a Christmas shopper to connect parking with the Strates Wonderland, Facebook pages inspired attendees to spread the spirit.
"I do not market or advertise or promote other on social media," said Weston. "I knew if there was too much of an outcry over parking, that would be the kiss of death."
While he immediately pulled the plug on the advertising, he also noticed that people were taking pictures with their camera and sharing them on Facebook. The online word-of-mouth was positive, and in the holiday season everyone wanted seasonal shots. "I became intrigued with what people were looking at and photographing," he said. "Through Facebook, I understood the value of what were doing, what was working the best with the customers."
Rides, Games, Food
The space for the event is tight, even by parking lot midway standards - about 350-ft. x 350-ft. "We put up about 20 rides," said Weston. Some of the 2017 top rides were the Dutch Wheel, KMG Fireball, Sky Flyer, Music Express, Zipper, Cliff Hanger, Large Scooter, Mini Indy, Giant Slide, and Ring of Fire. About half the rides are kiddie rides and while children and young families are the key demographic for a Christmas-themed event, "Top grossing rides each year are the Giant Wheel, Sky Flyer and KMG Fireball."
In addition, the event has just three food concessions, pop corn, funnel cake and pizza "I request at least a 50/50 mix of Christmas stock to be in each game concession," he said. "Game concessions are not a big grosser at this event and have not been since the beginning."
He added, "Customers are not so interested in the rides we are bringing, they want to know about what is new in Christmas displays and mascots. We have come to understand and view this type of an event is not a carnival or fair, it is a special Christmas event that has rides, family food and game concessions."
The entertainment is mainly music of the Christmas song variety - in 2016 they had a steel drum band that gave an Caribbean feel to holiday standards, and the event sponsored the Timber Creek High School marching band, which also provided a community tie-in.
While the Strates philosophy is to not approach this unique outdoor event as they do a fair, there are some unavoidable similarities. For instance, Florida's climate is not always cooperative. " Rain, cold and very hot temperatures all effect the event rain being the kiss of death," he said.
The demographics also trend a little bit younger than traditional fairs. During the past decade of this Orlando retail park hosting Santa's Winter Wonderland Village, the Hispanic population of the area has grown tremendously. "We've maintained and increased our attendance even as the community has changed," he said. "The demographics have changed, but there's been no decrease in crowd density. Spanish speaking families love Christmas."
While reluctant to tell all the secrets of why the Santa's Winter Wonderland Village has been successful, a way to keep employees working and revenues streaming during a month where most carnival companies shut down, it seems the most critical reason is also the most obvious - the joy of Christmas. "When a child sees Rudolph or Frosty and the Elf Station, you see it in their eyes, their joyous smile," he said. "The event has to serve the Holiday."
And how has it changed Strates Shows? "Before this all started Strates Shows had only a few Christmas items, like a 6' animated talking Santa that would be set up in the lobby of our corporate office in Orlando," he said. "Now we have a lot of Christmas Stuff."