ACROSS THE COUNTRY
‘Miami’s Version of Magic’: A Glitzy Christmas Theme Park
Miles from South Beach and most of Miami’s tourist haunts, Santa’s Enchanted Forest has dazzled locals for decades.
WHY WE’RE HERE
We’re exploring how America defines itself one place at a time. In Miami, a holiday theme park has for decades embodied the city’s distinct mix of cultures.
By Patricia Mazzei
Photographs by Scott McIntyre
Dec. 22, 2022
MEDLEY, Fla. — Fake snow blows on a gravel lot to greet visitors at one of South Florida’s most enduring Christmas traditions. Past a tunnel of blinding colored lights, dioramas celebrate the holiday with a subtropical twist: Santa on a Jet Ski. Santa on a fishing boat. Surfing Santa.
Food vendors hawk Brazilian picanha steak and dulce de leche churros. “All I Want for Christmas Is You” blares over loudspeakers in Spanish. A 100-foot artificial tree lights up in sync to reggaeton and Latin trap tunes.
This is Santa’s Enchanted Forest, Miami’s interpretation of an American Christmas.
For 39 years, miles from South Beach and most of Miami’s tourist haunts, the seasonal theme park known simply as Santa’s has been a mainstay of the holiday season. Though it is now in its third location in four years after its longtime lease expired — and the enchanted forest now consists of trees that had to be trucked in — its garish lights and throwback kitsch continue to symbolize Christmas for many of the region’s working-class people. Many are immigrants; some have never seen real snow or been able to afford a Disney vacation.
“There was no Christmas in Cuba,” said GiGi Diaz, 37, who immigrated to Miami as a child and has visited Santa’s most years since. “I had never seen a Christmas tree. I learned the concept of Santa Claus when I was 10 years old.”
While in high school, she and other girls in a dance group recorded a jingle for Santa’s that still plays on the radio during the holiday season. She now brings students from the dance academy she owns to perform at the theme park. “It’s a place where you can be a kid again,” Ms. Diaz said.
In a city with little interest in tradition, Santa’s has become a touchstone where adults who came as teenagers now bring their children, and vendors run booths once operated by their parents.
“I remember being 3 years old and running in to get my face painted,” said Karly Calvo, 28, whose father, Carlos, ran the Santa photo booth and several food stands for 37 years. After his death in April, she took charge.
“People I don’t know come up to me all the time: ‘Your dad was here when I was a kid!’” she said. “Sometimes I do feel he’s with me in spirit.”
She still gets her face painted almost every day over the roughly two months a year that Santa’s is open.
“All right, darling,” Jackie Jorge, a makeup artist, told Ms. Calvo as she put the finishing touches of glitter on her face with a Q-Tip on a recent Friday evening. “One, two, three: Beautiful!”
At a nearby picnic table, the Leon family, which had arrived early to beat the crowds, was getting ready to head home.
Jendry Leon, 33, had come with his wife, mother and 12-year-old son, David, a fan of corn dogs and the Ferris wheel. “We come every year,” Mr. Leon said.
“We used to come when he was a boy,” Mr. Leon’s mother, Milagros Rumbaut, 55, chimed in.
“We’d say, ‘OK, it’s Christmas. Time to go to Santa’s!’” Mr. Leon recalled.
I braved the traffic on the Palmetto Expressway to visit Santa’s recently — I confess, for the first time, having somehow dodged it as an undergraduate at the University of Miami. I wanted to understand why it was so beloved by friends and acquaintances who rarely miss a year of attendance, and what that loyalty said about Miami culture.
“It sounds insane to call Santa’s Enchanted Forest ‘culture,’” said Alex Fumero, 40, a film and television producer from Miami who a decade ago referenced the theme park in a video titled, “12 Days of Miami Christmas.” (“On the 10th day of Christmas, Abuela gave to me / 10 bucks off at Santa’s.”)
“People know that there’s Cubans and Latinos,” said Mr. Fumero, who now lives in Los Angeles. “But they don’t really know that there’s also this second-generation culture that’s native to Miami that’s the result of all this Latin American immigration.”
Like others who were raised in Miami, Mr. Fumero grew up speaking English at least half the time but frequently slips into Spanish — “I didn’t know I had an accent til I left,” he said — and has embraced both traditional American holiday customs and more brash South Florida flair.
Santa’s encapsulates that, he said: “There’s Santa Claus and Christmas trees and lights, but there’s also an Avalanche ride that goes backwards really fast, and they’re just blaring booty music on it.”
“I looked for Santa’s here in L.A.,” he added, a little forlorn. “And it does not exist.”
I had planned to go to Santa’s in Decembers past, but it had never panned out. Then, in early 2020, Santa’s lease at its longtime location, Tropical Park, first signed in 1992, expired. Its landlord, Miami-Dade County, did not renew it. The coronavirus pandemic kept Santa’s closed, and I worried I had missed my chance.
Santa’s returned last year, but its new home in the heavily Cuban city of Hialeah, just northwest of Miami, was so cramped that entrance lines were two hours long. Parking, of utmost concern to South Floridians, was a nightmare.
The theme park finds itself in yet another setting this year:a 40-acre lot in Medley, an industrial town near Miami International Airport. Parking is not a problem, but the namesake “forest,” a reference to Tropical Park’s many tall trees, is gone.
“You walked through there and it was like Miami’s version of magic,” said Billy Corben, a documentary filmmaker whose Jewish grandparents were friends with Santa’s Jewish founder, Jerry A. Shechtman. Mr. Shechtman died in 1995; his son Steven now owns the operation.
When Mr. Corben’s cousins would visit over the holidays, three generations would caravan in multiple cars to Santa’s, where they had devised a strategic route to hit favorite food vendors and rides.
“I’m not going because it’s in Medley now,” Mr. Corben declared at one point in our interview.
Then he kept reminiscing.
“We don’t really have a lot of common culture anymore,” he said, pointing to South Florida’s transient population and lack of institutional memory. “With all the tribalism of Miami, Santa’s very much felt like Switzerland. Like kind of neutral territory.”
“There’s just great memories there, and I think that’s probably true for any Jew you ask, any Cuban you ask, any Haitian you ask,” he continued. “And how many of those things do we have?”
The fajitas at Santa’s were so good, Mr. Corben said, that he once tried to buy some from the side of the highway, through the Tropical Park fence. Ward Deal, who runs the Viva la Fajita stand, told me that many of his devoted customers tried to do that at Santa’s previous location.
“People email me to find out if I’m here and figure out if they should get a season pass,” he said. “I see generations of kids that were here in strollers and are now here with their own families.” (The chicken fajita with guacamole did not disappoint.)
Mr. Corben said going to Santa’s “felt kind of pure.”
“It was naked capitalism,” he conceded. (Tickets for ages 9-64 are $42.99 a pop.) “But it also felt like this sort of benevolent thing. They gave us this Christmas gift.”
“Maybe we’ll go this year,” he said.
Susan C. Beachy and Kirsten Noyes contributed research.