The Christmas holiday officially begins in Lehigh Acres on Dec. 7 when Santa Claus makes a surprise visit in a carriage of sorts. It happens at Veterans Park at 55 Homestead Road where admission to the second annual Lehigh Winterfest is free.
In addition to Santa, there are lots of other surprises, too.
One is that there will be snow and flurries, "safely made synthetically," according to Chris Mojica, who is one of the two planners of the event which drew some 2,000 people last year without a lot of publicity.
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Cody Vagle will perform.
This year Mojica and Dathan Pyle, who both came up with the idea to hold a gala Christmas event in Lehigh, are looking for at least 3,000 people.
"We're hoping to see all the parents with children and all the young at- heart come out and really enjoy themselves. The event begins at noon and lasts until 8 p.m. including all the entertainment that is planned on the giant outside stage at the park.
"After dark is when we will light up a big Christmas tree in the park and also turn on the festival lights to make Veterans Park a truly Christmas setting," Mojica said.
He received the blessings and a check to go toward the cost of the event last week from the Lehigh Community Council. They handed him over a $150 check to help out and applauded the efforts underway for the Lehigh holiday celebration.
Mojica, who owns My Cheap Party Rentals in Lehigh is the type of guy who likes to see people in the party spirit and that is why he and a friend, Dathan Pyle, began talking about things they could do for Lehigh during the holidays.
They asked themselves, "how is it that we always hear negative things about our Lehigh Acres community" and "Why our community has to travel to Fort Myers to enjoy outings with our families."
"The conversation quickly transpired into ideas for events we want to see happen in Lehigh Acers to make a difference.
"Then the question was asked "Why can't we do something?" Mojica said.
Since he was in the party supply business, Mojica said they could use his equipment items but didn't believe there was enough to make a "big event." After throwing together several ideas, Lehigh Winterfest was born.
Mojica said the concept behind Lehigh Winterfest is to bring together the Lehigh Acres community to celebrate the magic of Christmas with a variety of fun activities for families with children and those who are young at heart.
"We also wanted to help those in need during Christmas. With the support from the Lehigh Acres Community Initiative, we were able to begin our first Toy Drive in 2012. All the toys collected were donated to Lehigh Acres Community Services which helped more than 300 families in Lehigh handing out toys from the Winterfest troy drive and from other firms and organizations in the community.
And this year, Lehigh Acres Initiative has again been holding a toy drive since the end of October. The toy drive will end at the Winterfest.
A colorful promotional card was made and Mojica said thousands have been distributed throughout the community. One side is in English and the other side is in Spanish.
It is also being held in partnership with Zumba Fit Studio with Ellie Lopez. You can go online at: www.LehighWinterfest.com and finds drop off locations in Lehigh Acres for toys.
"One toy will make a difference to support our local kids that are in need. With the support from our Lee County schools, toys will be distributed on Dec. 14 by Lehigh Community Services on Plaza Drive.
"Talk about fun, we are going to have live entertainment and snow flurries, carriage rides, music, food and prizes are planned throughout the event with Santa making a surprise visit, sometime after 1:30 p.m., but he'll be there," laughed Mojica. He also said that during Winterfest, families will enjoy appearances from popular children characters. Families will also be able to take pictures with Santa Claus and kids will be able to enjoy all the fun activities in the "North Pole Area" of Veterans Park, where there will be "snow," something the majority of children of Lehigh have only seen in pictures.
Some of the attractions in addition to great entertainment will be bounce houses, slides, obstacle courses, pony rides, crafts, and games with plenty of delicious food and much more, Mojica said.
"When the sun goes down, the park will light up with beautiful illuminated decorations as the event culminates with the Lighting of the Christmas tree by Larry Aguillar, who is running for a congressional seat representing part of Lehigh in next year's election," Mojica said.
Several acts are planned to entertain including cloggers, singers and dancers.
Local pop singer and PBS TV show host Cody Vagle will at the celebration. Cody is the star of the PBS T show Curious Kids. The hit show was just honored with a Bronze Telly Award. He began singing at age 5 in the church choir.
"It was obvious to anyone that heard him that he had a gift beyond his years. The choir director invited Cody to audition for the Christmas pageant. He got the part to perform a vocal solo in the production. At the age of 5 he started auditioning for local musical theater groups getting the parts, performances included shows at the Broadway Palm Dinner Theater where he was cast in such classics as Peter Pan. When he was eight, he was seen by a national touring company that needed local children performers for a production of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang at the Barbara B. Mann Performing Arts Center. Cody was one of 150 local kids to audition for the two available spots and received the spot, Mojica said.
Also, Leona Collins, a native new Yorker, who has been a professional gospel recording artist since the age of 12 will be on hand to sing Christmas music.
She began singing in Brooklyn with the famous "Institutional Radio Choir" where her first single "Anytime and Anywhere" was recorded.
She moved to Lehigh Acres in 2001 and joined New Life Assembly of God Choir where she currently sings. As she puts it: "I have known for 23 years this is where I was called to go and this is what I was supposed to do. I had my orders from God," she told her pastor, John Baschieri when she got there. "Now I'm home," she said.
Mojica also thanked the many sponsoring business and organizations and friends that are helping out.