ST. PETERSBURG — Each customer that slides into the backseat of Frantz Laroche’s vehicle is asked the same question.
“Are you ready for the best Uber ride of your life?”
As the journey begins, Laroche blasts holiday music punctuated with his own hearty “ho ho ho”s.
Here our Santa is a rideshare driver who looks like Stanley Tucci, with a shaved head and black-framed glasses. He wears a festive headband and a glowing string of Christmas lights around his neck. His sleigh is a black Honda Odyssey complete with glossy leather seats. Each person who enters it during the holiday season will be quizzed on classic Christmas music as they zip through the streets of St. Pete.
Welcome to the Holiday Rideshare Express. Think Cash Cab, but the prize is Christmas cheer.
Naturally, a group of Tampa Bay Times Christmas fans hopped at the chance to take a ride with him before he clocked into work last week.
“Because of politics, because people hurt each other for no reason, somebody’s got to drive his butt all over Florida to spread the positivity to others,” said Laroche, who also drives for Lyft. “You are among 30,000 passengers I’ve entertained just to put a smile on their face. And I intend to entertain 30,000 more.”
If your trip is long enough, Laroche might tell you why he’s so holly jolly.
Before he was an Uber driver, Laroche was another New York native who moved to Miami. He lived in South Florida with his first wife of 23 years. Then, she got sick.
The best doctors for her were in Central Florida, so they made the move to Orlando. For the last 10 years of their marriage, Laroche cared for her. And then his wife died.
At the time, Laroche lived a few miles from Disney World. He frequently visited the parks by himself, imagining that she was there with him as he stood in line for the rides and strolled past the shops.
“For many years I was living in the past, because I didn’t want to let her go,” he said.
Then one day at Magic Kingdom, Laroche met another single person. Dana was also an annual passholder, and she was haunted by her past, too. But after years in a physically and verbally abusive relationship, she wanted to forget about what she had been through.
The pair quickly became friends. In true rom-com fashion, the two formed a bond around the fact that neither wanted to date again. It was nice to have another single companion, someone who understood loss and having to start over. They met regularly at Cosmic Ray’s Starlight Café for long counseling sessions together.
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Laroche bought Dana a tiara as a joke, because she could be a bit of a “sarcastic princess.” When he placed it on her head, he realized how beautiful she was.
He had fallen for his best friend.
After months of working up the courage to hold her hand, he decided to take a risk and reveal his feelings.
“On the stroke of midnight, in front of Cinderella Castle, with a tiara on her head, I gave her a kiss like a princess,” Laroche said.
The pair started to date, and then a year after meeting, Laroche proposed in front of the castle. To celebrate their happily ever after, the couple wed — where else? — at the park.
“Now the best years of our lives are not when we were younger,” he said. “It’s when we were in our 50s. I truly believe in my heart God has blessed me. Because of the way I took care of my first wife — the right way — I have a second chance in life to grow old with somebody I love.”
It was Dana who suggested that Laroche give Uber and Lyft a try. He’d driven Orlando’s LYNX buses for seven years. And before that, he worked for Disney and Marriott. The man knew customer service.
He resisted at first, but then realized it was an opportunity to do much more than move people around.
“This is my way of thanking God, by giving every passenger the time of their lives in a rideshare, just like I’m having the time of my life in my marriage,” he said.
The games started after he found a CD at one of the Disney park gift shops that played a soundtrack of theme park ride music.
He started quizzing passengers to name each Disney ride as he played the songs. He’d pit kids against their parents. Husbands against wives. The winner got bragging rights.
It was a hit.
“Not only were they having a great time, I was having a great time,” he said. “I turned a stressful job into a fun job. Being kind is all you need.”
During our ride, Laroche ran through the rules.
“If you make two points, you’re a Christmas fan. If you make four points, you are a Christmas fanatic. And if you make six points you deserve to be a Christmas star.”
He played songs from films like “Home Alone,” “A Charlie Brown Christmas” and “The Polar Express.” (We needed a few hints along the way.) At the end, Laroche switched the song to a funky hip-hop beat. This was our prize.
“I’m gonna be your DJ Uber and this is gonna be your holiday! Traffic! Jaaaaaaam!”
Run-DMC’s “Christmas in Hollis” got louder. Wiggling behind the steering wheel, Laroche started to rap.
“L-O-V-E, L-O-V-E. No, I’m not crazy! This driver is just happy. Do you know why I’m so happy? Let me tell you why I’m so happy! A ding ding ding, look out, wedding rings. The joy that they bring. Makes me want to sing!”
Laroche’s phone is filled with playlists carefully crafted for his rides. Even after the holidays wrap up, he has different games for other seasons. In October, he transforms into the Ghoul-ber Ride-Scare. During the spring or summer, he might quiz customers on classic movie soundtracks. Each game ends with its own funky “traffic jam” mix of songs that make you want to dance in your seat.
Shy riders who want a silent ride can get their wish, but most people who step inside his vehicle are down for the challenge.
Laroche loves when he gets to share his story with passengers.
“There’s always someone who has common ground,” he said. “It helps me realize despite the craziness in the world, there’s a lot more good people in this world than bad.”
It’s not currently possible to specifically request Laroche as a driver through your Uber or Lyft app, but you can watch his adventures on Instagram. More than 1,300 riders have followed him on the Instagram account he created just to post rideshare content, @funfrantz. He hopes to become a motivational speaker — not just to the passengers in his backseat, but outside of the car, too.
He doesn’t plan to slow down the Holiday Rideshare Express anytime soon.
“Now that I’m here, I’m going to keep doing this for the rest of my life,” he said.