BRANDON — Pastor Charles Richards remembers experiencing the first Walk Through Bethlehem at his church nearly 30 years ago.
"We built a small idea of what Bethlehem would have looked like in front of our chapel," Richards said. "But it was probably only about half as big as it was now as far as the property and the size of the set."
The idea of an interactive Bethlehem setting came from another church in Tampa, which stopped doing it a few years after it began. Kings Avenue Baptist Church's 29th annual Walk Through Bethlehem continues today, Saturday and Sunday.
Over the past three decades, Walk Through Bethlehem has implemented a few ways to keep up with the times and growing attendance.
Depending on the weather, the church expects between 7,000 and 10,000 visitors to experience the walk. In order to help ease the two- to three-hour wait times, the church recently began including entertainment and snacks for those waiting to participate in the 45-minute tour.
They've also garnered the help of technology with a wait-time app, so visitors can register, leave and come back when their tour is ready to begin.
Linda Schmidt, who helped with the registration process last year, believes the app — in which the user scans a QR code and can regularly check their remaining wait time — is useful for those attending and for the volunteers working the event.
"A lot of people will come and get their number and then go have dinner," Schmidt said. "Last year, we had up to a three-hour wait, and we don't want people feeling like they're just hanging around waiting, so it's been very good for people waiting and makes our job smoother."
While technology may be in use for registration, Richards said those experiencing the event can expect a realistic depiction of Bethlehem to show "the true reason for the season."
More than 300 members of the church have worked tirelessly over the last few weeks to re-create the characters, town and experiences that guides will lead the audience through.
"I'm so proud of our people, because Christmastime is so busy for families, and we have these people coming to the church at 4 in the afternoon and staying until midnight on the weekends," Richards said. "We are so excited to be able to give this gift to our community, and I'm so proud to have it at our church."
Contact Kelsey Sunderland at firstname.lastname@example.org.