As the 29th annual Festival of Trees, dubbed "Santa's Workshop," prepares for its Friday opening, dozens of rosy-cheeked elves with pointed ears and mischievous smiles frolic on a 9-foot Christmas tree. The imps are into the candy, Santa's mailbox and the children's toys. One apparently leaned over too far and is now falling off his ladder.
Stuff happens when Santa goes on break.
Behind all this holiday havoc is the decorating team from AmeriLife, an insurance marketing group based in Clearwater that was chosen to create the 2013 Feature Tree for the extravaganza.
Unlike the playful elves, the team took the task very seriously.
"We wanted to make sure it was perfect so we decorated a 7-foot mockup tree first," said Kelly Atkinson, one of the decorators. The tree features "falling snow" and Christmas music.
It will be showcased among about 100 other seasonally festooned trees as UPARC Foundation presents its signature event Friday through Sunday in the gymnasium at the Long Center. (The foundation has its headquarters in the building.)
The trees, along with wreaths, centerpieces and handcrafted ornaments, all decorated by imaginative artists, schoolchildren, businesses and community leaders, will be for sale. Vendors will sell holiday fare along the winding woodlands pathway.
Be on the lookout for trees like "Boyds Bears," which showcases more than 200 handcrafted bears; "PC vs. Mac," a creation by a local tech group; and "The Old Red, White and Blue," by MacDill Air Force Base families.
Proceeds benefit the UPARC Foundation, which supports 19 group homes and three day programs for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. This year UPARC is celebrating its 50th anniversary. The group serves about 300 clients.
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In the mood for a fancier party? At the Premiere Night Gala on Friday, enjoy libations, yuletide performances and cuisine from upscale restaurants while perusing trees that inspire visions of sugar plum fairies, the North Pole, toy soldiers and gingerbread men.
The evening will celebrate UPARC's anniversary with a live auction of select trees, a Clearwater dolphin sculpture created by the clients of UPARC's Harborside Studios, tickets to the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, vacation packages and more.
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It's called Santa's Workshop for a reason. The guy in red will make his official arrival at 10 a.m. Saturday. Children can enjoy a milk-and-cookies bar afterward. Also on Saturday, holiday craftmaking activities for the little ones take place from 10 to 4 p.m.
Local choral and dance groups will perform each day. Photo opportunities with Santa will be available during all general admission hours.
Be sure and check out the special Mickey Mouse tree decorated by the Schaffer family of Indian Rocks Beach. The tree is a tribute to their son Michael, who died this spring at the age of 23. A dwarf, he weighed a mere 40 pounds and was 47 inches tall. He was medically fragile his whole life, his mother, Vonnie, said.
Besides the Mouse, he looked forward to the Festival of Trees every year.
"He loved the lights, the trees, the colors and photos with Santa," she said. "He didn't talk, but he 'quacked,' when he was happy. Everyone knew him for his quack, and it made everyone smile."
His tree is decorated with Mickey and Minnie ornaments; a plush Mickey toy rides in a sleigh beneath. Glittering "M"s stand for Mickey and Michael, and 13 bells recall the date of April 13, when he passed away.
Snowflakes also adorn the tree.
"I picked snowflakes because each one is unique and individual, just like Michael," his mother said.
Correspondent Terri Bryce Reeves can be reached at [email protected]