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The secret history of Santa’s Enchanted Forest

Santa’s Enchanted Forest, come to see the lights at the won-der-ful…

Come on, you know the tune. Whether you eagerly awaited its arrival growing up, or decided to go as an adult in an ironic-but-secretly-loving-it kinda way, Santa’s Enchanted Forest is a staple of Christmas in South Florida.

While the infamous commercial and radio jingle has been gracing airwaves and TV sets since 2001, the park has been open much longer than that. Since 1982, Santa’s Enchanted Forest  has opened every year at 5 p.m. through midnight from late October through early January. The fair was started by the South Florida-based Shechtman family, who still own and operate it 33 years later. “It’s a family business,” according to Buddy Cormican, director of the fair. Cormican spends his nights riding around the fairgrounds on a golf cart with his daughter and son, checking in on operators and food vendors to ensure everything runs smoothly. “I just want people to have a good time,” he said.

Cormican has been working at the fair for 23 years. As a teenager, he used to hang out around the park because many of his friends were ride operators and food vendors. One day, a friend dared him to try to get a job at Santa’s Enchanted Forest, a challenge he boldly accepted. Now, more than two decades later, he is essential to its operations.

While Santa’s Enchanted Forest is only open seasonally for about 2 months out of the year, Cormican works year-around. He has dedicated his life to the park — even tattooing a mural of it on his left calf. Four months before the park opens, staff begins setting up and assembling 3 million Christmas lights around hundreds of palm trees, creating that iconic twinkle that permeates the night sky at Tropical Park off the Palmetto and Bird Road, signaling that the park will soon be open for business.

The park’s entrance is lined with a red and green tunnel of lights, leading visitors into a walkway of showcases along the left and right. What you may not know is that for the first 2 years, Santa’s Enchanted Forest was a roughly quarter-mile walkway, featuring Christmas displays and food stands culminating with a roughly 100-foot-tall Christmas tree, which the park claims is Miami’s tallest. There weren’t any rides, or games. While most of the displays are relatively new, parts of the Peppermint Factory display, a showcase featuring Santa Claus riding a candy train, have been around since the park’s opening some 33 years ago.

“Every year it’s much better, it keeps getting bigger and bigger,” according to Hector Morales, a food vendor who has been serving beef shish kabobs, steak churrasco, and empanadas at the park since it opened. “It’s very different now … but the lights and the Christmas tree have always been here.”

In 1984, the park decided to add a merry-go-round, and since that proved such a success, the next year, 20 more rides were brought in. By 1992, the size of the park nearly doubled, with an additional 22 rides, making up a total of 42 — the number of rides in the park today. One of the oldest rides is the Himalayan, a series of cars that yanks ride-goers forwards and then backwards increasingly faster, according to Cormican. “The newest ride is the Fighter, which was just added this year,” he said.

After the park closes on January 3, Cormican will attend a huge carnival convention in northern Florida to learn about new rides and attractions he could bring to Santa’s in the next year. Meanwhile, a crew works to pack up the park over the course of 20 days. Any lights below 12-feet have to be removed, while the rest are kept up and turned off throughout the year. The displays are stored in a warehouse on 62nd St. in Little Haiti.

Food vendors set off to other carnivals, serving up elephant ears, donuts, and corn dogs to eager festival-goers throughout South Florida.

For Stefanie Perez and her sister Yolanda Garcia, there’s nothing quite like Santa’s Enchanted Forest. “We used to come here as teenagers,” Garcia said while picking up her daughter Zoey to take a picture at a Nutcracker exhibit. “We haven’t come in a couple years … but we decided to come and bring the kids now that they’re old enough.”

Whether it’s gorging on elephant ears or getting unbearably nauseous on the Gravitron (now called the Starship 3000), almost every South Floridian has a Christmas memory of Santa’s Enchanted Forest. And if you ever wondered what happened to the 15-year-old dancer who sang that unbearably catchy jingle, her name is GiGi Diaz, and she now runs GiGi’s Dance Academy in Hialeah.

If want to relive the magic that is Santa’s Enchanted Forest, entrance will cost you about $31. And as the song goes there’s Lights! Food! Rides! And so much more! … One price, all rides free!