Cathy Collier’s eyes widen even now as she recalls watching Santa’s quilt-covered belly rise and fall with each breath: “He ‘slept’ behind glass,” she says, “with a sign in front reading, don’t wake until december 24th.”
Like many long-time Hampton Roads residents, Collier cherishes the childhood memory of her family’s annual holiday visits to the sleeping Santa and about 400 other animatronic figures at Coleman Nursery’s Winter Wonderland in Portsmouth’s Churchland area. Coleman’s represented a mini-Disneyland to the town’s residents and travelers in the 1970s. The nursery closed in 2003, and the Portsmouth Museums Foundation purchased the Coleman Collection.
Sleeping Santa remains a hit at the Portsmouth Art and Cultural Center in Old Towne Portsmouth. In 2004, the center began presenting Winter Wonderland, displaying about 150 figures every year on an alternating basis, with new figures occasionally added. This year’s additions include an animated polar bear and a Gingerbread Factory with moving figures preparing Christmas goodies. Two older generations now accompany the youngest visitors to see animatronic skaters, angels, clowns, and elves at the museum.
“Through the years, Winter Wonderland has attracted people from out of state,” says Stephen Grunnet, museum gallery supervisor. “It has created awareness for the art and cultural center that we wouldn’t otherwise have.”
The most popular display, according to exhibit supervisor Tim Michalski, is the toy train running around half of the center’s second floor. Outdoor gazebos house nonanimatronic snow babies and Christmas mice. “Not everything is animated,” says Michalski, “but we have a Ferris wheel and other objects that lend motion to the scenes.”
The Wonderland experience extends to the gift shop, where “local artisan Rich Gray demonstrates make-and-take origami ornaments, and we offer airbrush painting and other activities,” says Grunnet.
Collier’s children are now grown. “I hope one day to accompany my grandchildren to see the Coleman Collection,” she says.
Winter Wonderland will be on display November 27 through December 31. See website for hours. Admission: $3; free for museum members. 400 High Street, Portsmouth. 1-757-393-8543; portsmouthartcenter.com.