Christmas on Las Olas began 50 years ago as a marketing gimmick to remind residents of far-flung locales west of State Road 7 that downtown Fort Lauderdale shops were open for their holiday shopping pleasure. But as it has developed, the most-irresistible charms of this signature community event are free.
Even a professional cynic such as Bob Hope was not immune to the unique appeal of twinkling lights and faux snow on palm trees: The comic used Las Olas Boulevard, dolled up with holiday cheer and Brooke Shields at her supermodel finest, as a backdrop for a 1987 Christmas special.
More than 40,000 people are expected Tuesday evening when Fort Lauderdale's main shopping and tourist thoroughfare closes to auto traffic for its annual five-hour gathering of folks bonding over the simple pleasures of the season. Choirs will sing, "snow" will fall, sleds will slide, "ice" skates will glide, food and drink will be served, and ugly sweaters will be worn. Admission, as always, is free.
Randi Karmin, executive director of the Las Olas Association, began coming to Christmas on Las Olas as a child growing up in Plantation. Her favorite thing about the evening doesn't cost a dime: "The people-watching is amazing," she says. "I'm always surprised at how many people come in costume. I've seen people in full-on elf costumes, Mrs. Santa with their dog dressed up, and lots of crazy Christmas sweaters."
Karmin says the strength of Christmas on Las Olas is its appeal to a wide range of visitors. It's a party brought to you by Jesus and Santa, but also Premier Beverage (this year touting the event's signature cocktail, the "Christmas Karameltini," fueled with Stoli Salted Karamel).
"It's difficult to pull that off," Karmin says of the seamless transition from family event in the early hours to a more-adult-friendly scene toward the end. "Our first priority is making sure we have fun attractions for kids. But there is a novel element to being able to walk up and down and mix and mingle on the boulevard. People really go for it."
The golden anniversary of Christmas on Las Olas will have some fresh elements, as well as all the crowd-pleasers you expect.
New this year is a 35-foot replica pirate ship, a 30-square-foot sandcastle in the street and the Miami Dolphins Funmobile. In addition, the synthetic ice rink set up on the lawn of the Riverside Hotel is now bigger by a couple of hundred feet to accommodate more skaters.
Expecting the anniversary event to be a particularly popular draw, Karmin recommends that families get there early and offers them her No. 1 tip for visitors: The Riverside Hotel garage is the closest parking option but, tucked behind Cheesecake Factory, remains underutilized.
"It's right there. It's six stories of parking," she says. "But it's a hidden gem."
Familiar favorites can be found on three entertainment stages offering children's choirs ranging from St. Anthony Catholic School and Our Savior Lutheran Church to Muse Children's Theater, as well as more-seasoned performers from the Archbishop McCarthy Jazz Band, the Gay Men's Chorus and Sunshine Suzuki Strings.
The snow mountain will rise two stories for sledding, a feature that benefits the Southeast Police Motorcycle Rodeo; Santa will be on hand for pictures; there will be free holiday movies next to Mangos restaurant; and more than 50 food, drink and holiday gift booths will line the street.
Also recommended is that enchanting moment when the first flurries of "snow" fall on your shoulder in front of the Riverside Hotel. What is it? Karmin is coy, listing its ingredients as one part "biodegradable material" and one part "magic."
Christmas on Las Olas
When: 5-10 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 27
Where: On Fort Lauderdale's Las Olas Boulevard between Southeast Sixth and Southeast 11th avenues.
Contact: 954-258-8382 or Facebook.com/ChristmasOnLasOlas