One wintry day in Beaver Creek, a curious young boy wandered away from his family, toward a frozen fountain. As he leaned over the stone wall to study the frozen water, he saw a quick burst of blue light beneath the ice. He waited for what seemed like forever for the flash to happen again, and when it didn't, he figured he had imagined the light. But just as he decided to find his family - whoosh - the light appeared again.
He began to tap, then pound on the ice, and the blue light responded, making him laugh so hard he lost his balance and fell into the fountain. Suddenly, the blue light danced around him. Ultimately, he lost his balance and crashed down upon the ice, cracking it wide open. And then he saw something - something magical, something almost unimaginable: Between the cracks, he saw a tiny nose, a little mouth and two sparkling eyes looking back at him. Just then, his mom yelled for him and he obeyed, but as he walked away from the fountain, he caught a glimpse of two elfish characters emerging from the ice.
And so begins the story of Winterfest, a magical holiday Beaver Creek tradition, which debuted last year. Every year, during the last couple weeks of December, the friendly creatures that live underground, in Winterlund, crawl through a portal, which leads from Winterlund to Beaver Creek. There, they saunter along the plaza, playing with kids and families, and generally bringing the magic of winter alive.
Old Man Winter helps kids' dreams come true, as they tie a ribbon around his walking staff and make a wish. The Snow Princess glides along, reminding little girls of their beauty. Scurry and Snowflake, the elves who originally found their way from beneath the ice, frolic about, along with other characters, like Bombar and the Snow Dragon.
"The kids want to believe in magic," said Cooter Overcash, who transforms into Old Man Winter during the festival. "It's the families' chance to have fun in winter."
The two-week festival, which kicks off today and runs through Jan. 5, includes events for all kinds of young folks - from toddlers to teens, said producer Brian Hall.
Santa hosts special workshops; the ice rink turns into a disco, complete with costumed skaters, a mirrored ball, lights and sounds of the '70s; visitors join in on drum circles, with about 50 drums to borrow; jugglers mesmerize onlookers with their flying fire torches; the Denver Zoo brings up eagles, falcons, owls and more to educate people about native birds; and figure-skating shows dazzle crowds.
Beaver Creek's Got Talent blends local kids with visitors who have sent in an online video to audition. The first day of the competition features the top 12 entrants, and on day two, the six best kids go head-to-head.
Every afternoon, at 4 p.m., the Snow Princess leads kids in a Wonder Parade, which starts at the Covered Bridge. Kids bang drums and sound instruments as they merrily march through the plaza.
"The overall intention is to create lifelong memories and experiences and to interact with the characters and environment in a way they wouldn't be able to at any other ski resort," said Tim Baker, the resort's executive director.
Winterlund characters hang out with kids from 3:30 to 7 p.m. every day, spinning their tales and enchanting children throughout the village. The Snow Princess often indulges in "princess moments," as Old Man Winter - or "Winny" - as she calls him, tells it. She'll get down on her knees to take pictures with kids, but when it's time to rise onto her feet, she'll often shout, "Winny," and that's his cue to help her up, in the royal manner in which she's accustomed. And the girls just eat it up.
"It's like they're in Disneyland," Hall said. "They're all around our Snow Princess."
"So many people can identify with her," Overcash said. "She's just so much fun."
Co-created by the kids
Hall wrote the storyline for Winterfest, which brings "more substance to hold onto and have fun with," he said. "It really is a story-based festival."
He uses lighting and props, like 6-foot-in-diameter hanging stars to stage the festival.
"We use the elements of theater to bring this special time to life. You are actually in the set of Winterfest," he said. "You feel like you're wrapped and enveloped in this really cool setting."
In fact, the kids unwittingly contribute to the characters' development. Old Man's wish staff came about when one kid, during last winter's sparse snow, said, "I wish it would snow." Overcash happened to have a few ribbons in his satchel, so he gave it to the child and said, "Here, make a wish, and tie it around my walking stick."
Needless to say, Winny needed a lot more magic ribbons. By the end of the festival, colorful ribbons coated his 5-foot-7-inch staff. Now, it's one of the most fun things he does.
"What's really exciting is that the kids are developing the story, and when they have ownership of the story, it's just really fun," Overcash said.
Last year's wish staff will stand near the fountain, where the story first began. And this year, wishes begin anew.
Shape-shifty type creatures also emerge from Winterlund and frolic about. Old Man Winter doesn't like to label the creatures; rather, he leaves it to the kids to define.
"It goes back to the imagination and what they see," Overcash said, "When they give us an idea of what they see, we try to elaborate on that to fulfill their dreams ... last year, it was so gratifying to have a bunch of people say, 'We did it' (when it finally snowed.)"
Last year also featured rows of about 35 to 40 ice sculptures along the main stage. Plus, a plethora of penguins created a theme within the theme: five penguins remained hidden throughout the resort, so Winterlund characters gave clues to help the kids uncover them. Michele Huyke of Rimini played along by creating "penguin food," a candy for the kids, but the kids didn't restrict their sweet delights to just themselves.
"We had kids walking around with chocolates, trying to feed our penguin sculptures," Hall said.
The characters also act as guides, encouraging kids to try winter activities, like skating, that they might otherwise be too scared to do.
As Overcash says:
"It's all about believing there's a real magic to winter."