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Festival of Trees unwraps yule season

The 18th annual Festival of Trees opens today with a private party and Thursday to the public with a grove of 130 decorated artificial Christmas trees.

It's "the largest number of trees ever," said Ray Hoopes, event chairman.

The trees comes in a wide array of decor.

The one tagged No. 423 is decorated by the Dunedin Fine Arts Center and called "Scottish Highlands" draped in plaid ribbons and gold-trimmed Christmas ornaments. No. 715 is "King's Christmas" by Publix on West Bay Drive. Its synthetic branches covered in red garnish and topped with a gold crown are "more traditional this year," Hoopes said.

The trees range in height from 3 to 10 feet, and are priced between $150 to $800. Proceeds benefit three children's charities: UPARC Foundation, the Hospice of the Florida Suncoast and Kids Kommittee, a program that gives grants to struggling neighborhood organizations.

Welcoming those who come to the festival is a 25-year-old animated Christmas display in the Harborview Center's front windows.

The display is called "Winter Wonderland" and features characters riding a moving teeter-totter and a carousel.

It is just a few miles away from its old base at the Don Olson tire store at the corner of Court Street and Missouri Avenue. People used to stop to view the display at holiday time whether they needed tires or not.

It was created in 1977 after Olson's daughter, Jan Kerns, who had just had an operation to remove a brain tumor, asked him to build it.

"How do you turn that down?" asked Olson, who sold the store 10 years ago. His daughter died in 1984.

Two years ago, the display was moved to the Festival of Trees.

Part of the display, a huge 17-foot by 22-foot G-scale model train layout set up near the vendor area, always draws children who love to control the trains by pushing buttons.

This year, an additional track has been installed to the New York Central System Model Railroad so six trains can run at the same time.

Also new this year is Gingerbread Lane, a 50-foot path lined with highly detailed gingerbread houses, such as one called "Victorian Fantasy."

Live bands and local performers will provide nonstop entertainment.

The lineup this year includes Bonnie Whitehead, the Tutterow Stars of Tomorrow dancers, the Clubhouse Cloggers and magician Paul Espo.