BY Nicole Miskovic
In the heart of our community, an annual event has woven its way into the tapestry of our holiday traditions. For 27 years, Winter Wonderland has been a beloved gathering that has been a hallmark of the holidays in Bradenton, inviting families, friends, neighbors, and visitors alike to celebrate the magic of a warm winter in Florida together. From its humble beginnings in 1996, guided by the vision of its founder Marianne Barnaby, Winter Wonderland has evolved into a heartwarming occasion that captures the magic of the holidays while reflecting the essence of Bradenton’s artistic and friendly nature.
This year, a new chapter unfolds for Winter Wonderland as Realize Bradenton, a local nonprofit dedicated to fostering a vibrant and culturally rich community, takes the helm of this time-honored event, offering a seamless blend of cherished traditions and exciting innovations.
A Glimpse into the Past: Inception and Growth
In 1996, amidst a town that had been largely dismissed as merely a governmental center, a spirited community member, Marianne Barnaby, embarked on a mission to infuse culture and vibrancy into the core of Bradenton. Reflecting on the sentiment about Bradenton, as well as the fact that the holidays were around the corner with no family-friendly community events planned, Barnaby set out to change that narrative.
She approached the mayor with the idea of organizing a downtown event that could attract people. She envisioned Christmas caroling, singing, and the creation of a snow mountain for the attendees. And with a go-ahead from the city, lots of creativity, and some community contributions, the inaugural Winter Wonderland was born.
A modest affair, the event spanned from 5 to 9pm, featuring face painting, local talents like the Manatee High Jazz Band, and our now-beloved “snow mountain” that captivated children and their parents. At 8:30pm, the crowd gathered near City Hall, caroling as they decorated a festive pine tree, marking the culmination of the evening’s festivities. And with more than 2,000 people joining the celebration —1,200 more than the anticipated 800 — the event was advocated to become Bradenton’s new annual tradition.
“It was started with the noblest of intentions. It was started as something that would bring the community together at the time of year when people like to be brought together,” said Barnaby. “And it’s for the kids. To see them get excited doing something that they may have never done before.” Winter Wonderland achieved just that — uniting families, fostering community spirit, and igniting a spark of excitement in children.
Embracing the Future: A New Chapter with Realize Bradenton
Leaving a rich history of community impact in its wake, Winter Wonderland has commenced its latest evolution as Realize Bradenton enters the stage, carrying the legacy of Marianne Barnaby’s vision into the future. Kristie Kindstrom, the coordinator for this year’s event, radiates with pride while discussing the honor of continuing Barnaby’s tradition.
“A lot of the elements of Winter Wonderland will look and feel and have the same spirit of what Marianne has cultivated,” said Kindstrom. “The familiar Main Street layout, with a stage on one end, hayrides on the other, and holiday market vendors lining the center, we want to preserve that atmosphere.”
Pairing with the success of the organization’s Bradenton Public Market, the event will also feature vendors offering seasonal delights, gifts, and ornaments, in addition to offering a platform for budding talents and entrepreneurs in our community to shine. New elements and surprises are also in store at every cross street for this year’s attendees, though the heart of Winter Wonderland will remain unchanged — a celebration of community, family, and togetherness.
Winter Wonderland will take place on Saturday, December 9, this year starting at 5pm, coinciding with the lighted boat parade. And as the event turns to a new chapter with Realize Bradenton carrying the torch, Marianne Barnaby’s dream of fostering a vibrant, healthy, and culturally enriched Bradenton remains steadfast.
“The goal for an event like this, and quite frankly for the events that Realize Bradenton hosts, is to bring people together. To create opportunities for everyone within this city to have a place to come,” Kindstrom said.
In an era when our community bonds are stronger than ever, Winter Wonderland stands as a testament to the power of shared experiences, the magic of the holiday season, and the unbreakable spirit of Bradenton.