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From Story Boards to Tropical Park, Miami's Newest Christmas Fair Redefines Holiday Midways
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In Miami,  snow never falls and there's no Jack Frost to nip at your nose, but the community has shown decade long support for a Christmas Fair. The nightmare before last Christmas in 2023 was the fear that Miami may not have any Christmas fairs at all, but not only did that fear never come to pass, but the city had two Christmas Fairs.

The Nightmare Before Christmas analogy is more apropos because it not only alludes to a civil lawsuit that nearly jeopardized Miami's Christmas fair tradition, but that the company the judged ruled in favor of, Loud and Live Engage, has produced the Haunted House Horror Carnival, which for more than a decade has been Miami's Halloween Fair. 


Tropical Park Lawsuit 

At the center of the lawsuit was Tropical Park, a 275-acre former racetrack now owned by the county and, until 2019, home of Santa's Enchanted Forest, first held in 1982 and owned by the South Florida-based Shechtman family (The company declined to comment for this article). 

Santa's Enchanted Forest found a new home where it just celebrated its 40th anniversary. It first moved to Hialeah Park,  then to land described by the local press as “located in the Doral/Medley area of Miami-Dade County. The new venue spans 40 acres and offers free general parking.”

In the lawsuit, Santa's Enchanted Forest sued Miami Dade County and Loud and Live Engage, alleging the new holiday-themed fair – Christmas Wonderland, according to local reporting, was “a knockoff that gets preferential treatment.” But, the judges ruled otherwise and Miami had two Christmas Fairs last Christmas. The newest addition to the Miami Christmas Fair scene featured 50 midway rides, and an immersive extravaganza with sets, scenarios and actors playing Elves and other holiday characters. Although plagued by some rainy days the days leading up to and including Dec. 25, approximately 300,000 attended the first-time fair, according to Tony Albelo, CEO, Loud and Live Engage. 

The company's Haunted Horror House Carnival came to life in 2013 with much success. Apparently, it had become widely known prior to 2019 that Miami Dade County would not be renewing the lease with the Shechtman family so Tropical Park and the company “wanted to do a Christmas event in 2018 and were ready by 2021, but then came COVID,” said Albelo.

Albelo said that Jeff Brady, the ride manager for the Halloween event contacted Michael Reisinger of Michael's Amusements to design the layout. Wood Entertainment Company and Rockwell Amusements were also contracted for rides. These three midway providers were long-time  Santa's Enchanted Forest at Tropical Park participants, which typically contracted with dozens of midway companies. “We consider them partners, they know more about rides than anyone, they're class acts. They are business guys who understand their side of the business and my side of the business. Throughout the event, they gave me advice on which days will be slower and some promotions to do, designing the queue lines and ticketing operation placements. Mike (Michael Reisinger) laid out the midway.”


Tinsel Trail

“This is an old race track, but they did a phenomenal job, with laser lights, the Tinsel Trail, it was a very original design,” said Reisinger. “We had a Toy Land, a Santa Land. (It was) very  original. We designated a Kiddie Land and had a separate area for The Big Wheel. The parents really appreciated the rides being separated from the adult rides. You have a limited area, but we laid out the rides to keep the people flowing through. [Loud and Live Engage] paved the perimeter with new asphalt, added water pipes, so it was more accessible, and simpler for all the attendees.” 

The Tinsel Trail, the center piece of the event, featured half a mile of holiday displays, light shows, and immersive experiences. Adjacent to the walkway were unique interactive worlds each with its own theme, sights, sounds, activities and Instagram-able opportunities. They included Holi-Dade, a celebration of Miami-Dade County's diversity, people, culture, and neighborhoods; Sweet Street, the popular board game brought to life; Toy Town, featuring the Elf Brigade and kid-sized rides; Arctic Delight, where Floridians experienced a wall of snow  and adults can drink at the Ice Bar; and of course Santa's Village, with reindeer, more elves and ole Saint Nick. 

Tinsel Trail's final destination was the Magnificent Midway, described as “featuring over 50 carnival rides, including three roller coasters and the largest traveling Ferris wheel in North America, the iconic "Eye in the Sky," which towers at over 150 feet… Completing the midway experience was a plethora of delicious carnival food, an array of local food trucks and vendors.”

Another new feature of the Magnificent Midway was the IG'loo 360-Dome, a 3D-mapped immersive exhibit which claimed to be the first attraction using this technology in Miami. “We started planning more than a year in advance and buying all the assets, which was 4,000 linear feet of displays and photo ops.”


Storyboarding Scenarios 

Albelo and his team spent months storyboarding the entire wonderland, meeting with contractors and of course Reisinger. It also meant writing up scenarios and hiring up to a dozen actors for the Elf Brigade and other holiday parts. “I'm a parent of two twin fourteen year olds, and as a parent what I like doing with them are the things you see on Facebook and Instagram. A driving force for us to create, and even that would lead to taking photos and sharing memories.”

Unlike many fairs with decades of history who have strived to make themselves social media friendly, this brand new Christmas Fair didn't have to adapt. It was digitized, networked and user-friendly from the get go. “We wanted to a place to make memories and create an experience where even if you don't come in with a smile, you leave with a smile,” said Albelo.

He added, “we targeted new families, but we wanted our look and feel to be more sophisticated. We barely used Santa Claus, but we created upscale imagery for all our social posts. We encouraged people to make memories and let your inner kid roar. We used certain words in our social media ads and posts that had a certain vibe with families. We realized to convince people to make a night out of it, and to get value, we needed to offer them more than a haunted house. We had to have more photo ops and give them something to see when they are on the rides.” 

Social media also drove the marketing and outreach, which targeted young families. Michael Wood, who had been at Santa's Enchanted Forest for decades but decided to contract with the new fair because it was “time for a change” noticed the demographic shift in fairgoers. “I saw more families. It was definitely a different demographic. We attracted a different customer and it was very interactive and fresh,” he said.

Wood was apprehensive like many in Miami that with two Christmas Fairs, the Christmas Wonderland would hurt” Santa's Enchanted Forest or vice versa. Certainly there was overlap – how could there not be for such lengthy events – but what the Christmas Wonderland proved was “the Miami market can handle two Christmas Fairs,” said Wood. “Christmas is big here, there are lots of Christmas-themed events in town.”

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