Navy Pier Celebrates Holidays with Winter WonderFest

During the holiday season every year, Navy Pier hosts Winter WonderFest, a Christmas-themed festival for people of all ages.

This will be Winter WonderFest’s 16th year and it features an indoor skating rink, pictures with Santa Claus, rides and Winter Wondertown, an interactive “town” with live actors, which takes place in the main festival hall toward the back of the Pier, a 170,000 sq. ft. event space.

Sue Kessler, arts and discovery program manager at Navy Pier, said she enjoys running the festival.

“I love this interactive pretend village we have,” she said. “I think of it as a Christmas train set come to life”

Kessler explained that the rehearsal process was purely improv, where the actors got into their characters in preparation for the festival.  Jaime Raglow, an actress for Winter Wondertown and a Loyola alumna, plays Catrin Greenglow, one of Santa’s elves.  She takes photos with children and families, walks around Winter WonderTown and interacts with all the festival-goers, staying in character the entire time.  She also supervises the line for photos with Santa Claus.

“I absolutely enjoy becoming my character for a day. As soon as I’m out on the floor, I am no longer Jaime, I am Catrin Greenglow,” said Raglow. “I have a blast seeing the joy on the faces of children, and the adults, as they get to meet a real elf from the North Pole.”

Another actor, Joe Boersma, plays Burl Evergreen, Mayor of WonderTown. As a festival-goer myself, I asked him to tell me about his job.  Without breaking character, he described all the different buildings within WonderTown, such as GYMiny Christmas, Café Ambrosia, and so on.

“I love interacting with people of different ages,” Boersma said.

Rachel Parent, costume designer and wardrobe supervisor, as well as the stage manager, spoke to me briefly about the audition process with the actors.  Auditions start at the end of October, however the team begins planning Winter WonderFest as soon as the previous year’s festival ends.

The signature Christmas tree, located at the entrance directly in front of pictures with Santa, is larger than the rest. There are many more Christmas trees on display throughout the festival. Each tree is decorated with a different theme.  For example, this year there is a Minion tree, which is yellow with big goggles, and a Harry Potter tree, with all the colors of the four houses within the popular story.  Each tree is generously donated by a different sponsor as a way to display all those that contributed to the festival.

As you walk around the festival, you will come across concession stands from different food and beverage companies, activities for children such as putt putt golf, inflatable bounce houses, cookie decorating and various rides such as a carousel.  The skate rink and tube slides located at the West side of the festival are also big attractions.  Behind Winter WonderTown, on the East side of the festival, there is a train station where people can ride a train to the Arctic Mountain, another popular attraction of the festival.

I visited the festival on the first Saturday of its opening and at 6 p.m. I was surprised to see aerial silk dancers in front of the main Christmas tree.  These dancers did elegant acrobatics on silks that were hanging from the ceiling.

This year, the title sponsor is Fifth Third Bank, however many other Chicago and scenic companies contribute to the production.  Navy Pier is not for profit, so the festival is one of the biggest annual fundraisers they organize.

“It is a great way to share the holiday joy with your family,” Raglow said.

I absolutely loved my experience at the festival and believe it is a wonderful event that benefits all the dedicated organizations at Navy Pier.

Winter WonderFest runs through Jan. 8, opening at 10 a.m. daily, with closing times varying by day. Regular passes cost $10 and activity passes cost $25 and can be purchased online at or at the door.

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