Five-year-old Alex Jones could barely contain himself.
He clutched his present and craned his neck around his classmates, trying to get a better look at his hero, who was all decked out in a fuzzy red suit and white curly beard.
"Santa Claus, you rock! You're a rock star!" yelled Alex, a student at Little People's Learning Center of Safety Harbor.
Alex and dozens of other children at the Safety Harbor preschool knew that Santa Claus was planning to visit. He always does before Christmas.
So when he arrived with members of the Safety Harbor Fire Department about noon Thursday (with a quick whoop of their emergency siren), a chorus rang out in the hallways.
"Santa! Santa! Remember me, Santa?"
"Hey, look at me, Santa. Right here!"
"I love you, Santa Claus!"
This Santa, also known as firefighter John Weston, posed for photos with the kids and handed out presents provided by husband-and-wife preschool owners, Dean and Anastasia Avram.
"Don't open them yet," Santa told them.
Not a single child, ages 2 to 5, tore into the wrapping paper.
"We always tell them Santa is watching and we say, 'Let's see if he'll come' and now here he is. Look at their faces," said Anastasia Avram, 50.
Wearing a gray T-shirt with a robot on the front, Nicholas Mellis, 3, waited patiently for his turn with his small hands clasped together in his lap.
As Santa called his classmates' names, his facial expressions alternated between pained glances and beaming smiles.
"Nicholas," called Weston. "Hey, that's my name, too!"
Nicholas' eyes grew wide and he tossed a backward glance at his teacher, looking for support.
"We had a two-week issue with that because he thought he was going to turn into Santa Claus," said teacher Jennifer Hyde, 28.
Members of the Fire Department, who also visited several assisted living facilities Thursday, have been coming to the preschool for years, said the Avrams.
"It means everything. It's all for the kids," said Dean Avram, 60.
Parent Franc Potekev, of Clearwater said the gesture was a great way to share the holidays with kids, their parents and the community.
"This is a wonderful way of keeping the holiday spirit and magic alive," he said.
And what did his 4-year-old son, Jimmy, want for Christmas this year?
"Everything on my list."
Rita Farlow can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4157.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: Mike Pounds was the firefighter-paramedic pictured with Santa Claus as part of a story about the Safety Harbor Fire Department bringing some holiday cheer Thursday to preschools and nursing homes. Pounds' first name was incorrect in two photo captions.