By SUE SUCHYTA
Sunday Times Newspapers
LINCOLN PARK – Santa takes top billing in Fantasyland, where holiday scenes, model trains and bright lights dazzle visitors as they made their way to St. Nicholas for a visit and photo opportunity.
Volunteer Dave Gentry of Lincoln Park said they had a good turnout Nov. 25 during the first day of the exhibit.
“They like coming and seeing Santa and telling him what they want for Christmas,” Gentry said. “A lot of the things are originals from when we first opened back in the 1960s. The Nativity Room is still the same, and some of the characters throughout the building are the same, but we try to update it every year to have something new and more up-to-date for the kids.”
Gentry said the new displays this year are a library room, a music room, a Winter Wonderland, and a “Frozen” inspired scene near the entrance.
He said his favorite display is the singing boxes.
“I’ve liked them since I was a kid,” Gentry said.
Samantha Korbal, 11, of Lincoln Park, who volunteers in the Winter Wonderland room while her father worked outside with the Community Emergency Response Team, said children tend to focus on the screen showing scenes from the movie “Frozen,” while adults look at the surrounding displays. Her presence in the room is to discourage anyone from reaching beyond the barriers and touching the displays.
Korbal said the Winter Wonderland room is one of her favorite spots.
“It’s between Santa or this room, but when I don’t want to wait in line for Santa, I am in here,” Korbal said.
Volunteer Bonnie Shaffer of Lincoln Park said Santa and Winter Wonderland are the tops spots for most visitors.
“If they want to see Santa Claus, they usually hit that first,” she said.
She said the Gingerbread House and the Candy Factory are popular displays, so those return each year, and when items need repair, new items are substituted.
She said coming to Fantasyland was a family tradition when she was growing up.
“My mom and my dad used to bring all of us kids here every year,” Shaffer said. “I haven’t missed many years.”
Lincoln Park resident Frank Maniaci said he continues to lead a team of volunteers because visitors enjoy the displays so much. He said this is the 53rd year Fantasyland has been sponsored by the Lincoln Park Chamber of Commerce.
“The city of Lincoln Park gives us the building and the electricity that goes with it, but everything in here is owned by the Lincoln Park Chamber of Commerce,” Maniaci said.
He said attendance has become a tradition for many families.
“I’ve had people tonight tell me they came here when they were kids, and they are surprised it is still here,” Maniaci said.
He said the setup took a team of six retirees 14 days, working six to eight hours a day. The volunteers then run the event, and pack it away after the holidays.
The items are packed into three semi-trailers and stored at the Department of Public Safety yard.
“It’s a big undertaking,” Maniaci said. “We’ll end up somewhere in the vicinity of 20,000 to 25,000 people who come and visit us.”
He said the crowd size increases as Christmas approaches, and people will wait in a line halfway around the building just to see Santa.
Maniaci said the scene with Ralphie by the leg lamp inspired by the movie “A Christmas Story” is one of his favorite scenes, and it is a popular spot for taking photos.
The model trains are another popular spot.
Lincoln Park resident Darrell Hicks, president of the Lincoln Park Train Club, which has its display at the top of the stairs leading to Santa, said while they are open from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. most Saturdays during the year, this is when they get the most exposure.
He said despite the decline in the number of model train enthusiasts, the model train components that people may still have are very collectible.
Hicks said the club has been in Lincoln Park for 12 years, and was in Trenton for 30 years prior.
“We just pretty much hang out here on Saturdays,” he said. “It keeps us out of trouble.”
Hicks said children are fascinated the first time they see the model trains as part of their visit to Fantasyland.
“It’s a great place,” Maniaci said. “It will be here as long as we can keep this going.”
(Sue Suchyta can be reached at [email protected].)