CLEARWATER — It took 44,300 lights, 623 feet of garland, 240 pounds of "snow," oodles of volunteers and eight days to transform the three-court gymnasium into a wintery wonderland.
Now, the sparkling charitable event that benefits individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities, is ready for its closeup.
The 31st annual Festival of Trees, hosted by the Arc Tampa Bay Foundation (formerly UPARC), runs through Sunday at Clearwater's Long Center.
More than 400 decorators, from artists to business owners and community leaders, have poured their hearts, money and time into creatively decorating nearly 200 trees and wreaths, all available for purchase.
This year, look for an abundance of jingle bells.
"Our theme is Jingle Bell Jubilee," said Madison Orr Hauenstein, the foundation's executive director. "The word 'jubilee' is often used to denote a special anniversary and so this is a nod to the city of Clearwater's centennial celebration."
Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos said the festival is a tradition for many who want to celebrate the advent of the holiday season with family and friends.
"New York City has the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade; we have the Festival of Trees," he said.
Organizers have dusted off the trophy and brought back the Mayors' Challenge, a special category of decorated trees. Participating cities and towns include Clearwater, Dunedin, Belleair, Oldsmar and Belleair Bluffs.
Debb Pauley, Oldsmar's marketing professional, said Mayor Doug Bevis selected a railroad-themed tree called the Mayor's Magical Express. The story behind the decision is that railroad giant CSX Corp. is considering selling existing tracks that could be used for commuter trains crisscrossing between Pinellas and Hillsborough counties. It would be a major boon for Oldsmar because of its central location.
More than $100,000 has been raised for the Arc Tampa Bay Foundation in sponsorships alone. That includes a check for $20,000 from top sponsor AmeriLife, an insurance group providing the feature tree, which will be auctioned off during tonight's Premier Night Gala. All other trees are priced in advance.
The AmeriLife tree is adorned with reindeer and other fauna, both naughty and nice. Some are diving into tubs of frosting, while others are raiding Santa's bag of toys or getting tangled up in Christmas lights.
In addition to holiday tree shopping, tonight's gala, which runs from 7 to 11, features an array of food offerings from upscale restaurants as well as music and dancing.
There's a multitude of donated items to bid on including smart phones and a boat ride/fishing/dinner experience featuring your catch of the day.
Gala tickets are available for $75 per person and available at the door.
Santa arrives Saturday at 10 a.m. This time he will be surrounded not by elves but by four Holiday Belles. Afterward, children can enjoy milk and cookies with Saint Nick, have their faces painted and draw on a chalkboard gingerbread house.
"The magic of the Festival of Trees is that is truly a community project that couldn't happen without the help of so many volunteers who set it up, decorate, help during the event, and provide sponsorships," Hauenstein said.