How Wekiva Island’s Winter Wonderland came to be

After hearing stories of the Lighted Boat Parades the River Rats used to hold annually at the old Wekiwa Marina, I thought it would be fun to recreate those memories and hold a Boat Parade of our own at Wekiva Island.

I recruited many boat stall renters and regulars, and we posted a few posts on Facebook. We were excited for our first Boat Parade on December 19, 2015, at 7 p.m.

Florida snow

By 6:45 that evening, I was in full-on panic mode. There were about 20 times the people we had expected, there was no parking, the bartenders were running their butts off, there was the longest line we had ever seen at Without A Paddle Cafe, the lights on the boat proudly carrying Santa Claus were going out, and we had only eight boats in the parade. At about 7:15 p.m., Wekiva Island founder Bill Weinaug found me in the crowd and yelled, “Carrie! OH MY Gosh Carrie!” I hung my head and waited to be yelled at about the utter chaos that was happening all around us and was shocked when he said, “This is awesome! This is amazing! The people love it!”

Two days later, I received a call from a reporter with Newsweek magazine. She was doing an article about holiday boat parades in the U.S. She was featuring the famous Newport Beach Parade and included us as well. What a hick I sounded like saying, “We even had a reindeer welded to the front of one boat.” But, I knew we had created something special that evening.

After the turnout and feedback we received, we realized this community needed a place to experience the wonder of winter right in their backyard. We began brainstorming and contacted Dargan Watts, award winning show director of The Birchmore Group and spent a long evening in June with him.  We planned, enjoyed some wine, played in snow flurries falling from the sky, drank some more wine, crunched a lot of numbers with our CFO and rediscovered the magic that the Christmas Season is all about.

We come from Western New York, and snow was a large part of the holiday season for us. We wanted the families here in Florida to experience the thrill of sledding down a hill and sipping hot cocoa while snow flurries fall from the sky. We decided to recreate the excitement of that first snowfall here at Wekiva Island.

The first night that Santa and Mrs. Claus arrive on their floating sleigh brings happy tears as you hear the children exclaim “Santa is here” and jump with joy. The amazement on their faces when the snow flurries fall from the sky is touching.

Four years later, we still begin planning Winter Wonderland in June. We have moved things around, added more characters and decorations and even survived that time that Santa Claus fell into the river.

We still laugh about that first time I said, “Hey, lets have a Boat Parade!” Every year, it becomes more meaningful.

Winter Wonderland is a magical month that includes real snow for children to play in and slide down, snow flurries, visits from Santa, Mrs. Claus, The Grinch, Whoville Elves, Cindy Lou Who and Buddy The Elf. Children enjoy ornament decorating, face painting, stilt walkers and even a special Breakfast with Santa. We show some of the most beloved Christmas movies on Saturday evenings on a large inflatable screen outside under the stars. This magical month is capped off with our Annual Winter Wonderland VIP Party.

Check out all the great Winter Wonderland events at and come share it with us this year.


— Carrie Lang-Vanderhoef

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    Wekiva Winter Wonderland Santa's Workshop

    Winter Wonderland Has Arrived!

    Winter Wonderland is back again, and we’re excited to celebrate the festive season all December long. In addition to our well-loved activities like daily “snow” flurries, the Christmas tree forest and our 24-ft tall tree, and visits from your favorite Christmas characters, Santa is inviting all the good boys and girls for the first time ever to his Workshop, right here at Wekiva Island.

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