Almost 300 individuals of all ages walked through the doors of the Tarpon Lodge Wednesday night during the inaugural Holiday House of H.O.P.E. Family Night.
"The kids looked like they were having a blast," said Rob Wells, general manager of Tarpon Lodge.
Although this is the third annual year the Beacon of H.O.P.E. has held the Holiday House at the Tarpon Lodge, it's the first year they decided to include a Family Night, which kicked off the four-night affair. The event is the largest fund-raiser the Beacon holds all year.
Richie Sciorilol, 3, glued Santa together to create an advent calendar to count down the days until Christmas during the Holiday House of H.O.P.E’s first Family Night.
The grounds of Tarpon Lodge came to life Nov. 28 as the kids made their way to the seawall near the docks patiently awaiting Santa and Mrs. Claus' arrival by boat. Once the horn blew signaling the boat was close, the kids began chanting "Santa, Santa."
"I'm not a child, but as I was standing on the dock waiting for Santa and Mrs. Claus to arrive, I could hear the 'Ho, ho, ho' from Santa and I felt like a kid listening to that," Beacon Board of Directors President Elsie Stearns said. "For me it was magical to stand on the dock hearing Santa's booming voice."
The chanting continued as the special guests made their way down the dock with "Let's go Santa, let's go Santa." The "Ho, ho, ho and Merry Christmas" soon followed as Mrs. Claus and Santa made their way to the sidewalk that led them to the gazebo where pictures were taken.
An instant line formed as the kids waited to sit on Santa's lap and share their list of presents. About 100 pictures were taken of the youngsters sitting on Santa and Mrs. Claus' lap.
Wells said he enjoyed how the event was set up with activities in different locations for the kids. Wells said the youngsters had the opportunity to go to the gazebo and take pictures with Santa; go across the way and enter the reading area, which provided a magical feel due to the curtains, which were attached to the tent, waving in the breeze with a glow, as stories were told; or go under the Island House to create Santa advent calendars.
"I thought the whole thing was a lot of fun," Wells said.
Stearns said she thinks the Family Night touched all ages.
"It was magical from one age to another," she said. "Happiness, joy and magical memories from babies to elderly."
There were eight different rooms that the kids could enter to find presents for their family members at an affordable cost throughout the event in the Tarpon Lodge.
The first floor included Mel Meo and Cliff Schultheis, The Sweet Spot, Pine Island Attic Holiday Bazaar, Nocera and a tree auction in the patio. The second floor included Pine Bay Gallery, Center of Attention Day Spa, Pat Johnson and Beacon Angels.
Penny Honc filled The Sweet Spot with an assortment of goodies Wednesday night with discounted prices for the youngsters. She said in order to have enough cookies, breads, cakes and jellies, they recruited friends and family to help them bake enough for the four-day sale.
The Matlacha Hookers baked cookies for the Family Night event, which Honc said was their best seller. She said she is hoping they will sell more cakes and bread over the next couple of nights.
Thirty-six Student Achieving Success youngsters were also invited to be a part of the festivities Wednesday night. They were given $5 vouchers that they could spend in the various rooms.
"We got to go to each room and buy something with Beacon bucks," Peyton Lovelace, 10, said smiling.
He said he bought presents for his family members.
The Spa Room, Center of Attention Day Spa, was Peyton's favorite room because of the spa balls that fizzle and become a bubble bath when put them into the water.
Overall, he thought the event was really cool because they had the chance to eat, have fun, listen to the choir and visit Santa Claus.
In addition, the $5 entry fee donation also included a buffet dinner of hot dogs, several different kinds of pasta, fruit and garlic bread.
Andre Hawthorne, 8, said he enjoyed eating the fruit the most during the Holiday House of H.O.P.E.
When asked what his favorite room was, he said Mel Meo's room, which contained various pieces of artwork, because he liked the pin that he could make.
The parents also enjoyed the event.
John Stewart thought the event was a lot of fun.
"The kids are definitely enjoying it," he said of his children, who are 7, 4 and 2 years old. Stewart said the story time and pictures with Santa Claus is what captured his kid's attention the most.
This is the first time the Stewart family has been to the Holiday House of H.O.P.E.
Luke Hopken also attended the event with his 16-month-old daughter, who briefly sat on Santa's lap.
"It's awesome," he said of the event. "Really good."
Hopken said he will attend the event next year for sure.
Wells said he would definitely like to see the Family Night continue with the Holiday House of H.O.P.E.
"I think it is a great event," he said. "So many of the locals come out and enjoy it, it makes it fun for us to do."
Stearns agreed that the Family Night will definitely be incorporated into the Holiday House of H.O.P.E. for years to come. She said it is about starting traditions with families that will last a lifetime.
"What more beautiful place can you have Santa sitting in a gazebo with the water in the background," Stearns said. "It makes for a very magical holiday season for sure."
She said they are blessed to have a family like the Wells to help them host the event, as well as the many volunteers that give their time to help organize the event.