Charlotte Motor Speedway's inaugural Carolina Christmas event is more than just one of nation's largest drive-through light parks and villages.
The NASCAR infield garages have been transformed into a walk-through Christmas Village, complete with North and South poles, filled with area volunteers and vendors who help bring to life activities like ice skating, roasting marshmallows, writing and mailing letters to Santa and making Christmas ornaments.
There are even carnival rides, a petting zoo and live Nativity scene. The Bethlehem-themed village has volunteers from area churches dressed in character, as well as people giving demonstrations on candle-making, blacksmithing and basket weaving.
The 2.5-mile course features more than 1 million energy efficient LED (light-emitting diode) lights and nearly 500 multicolored displays. Visitors also can drive down pit road and through Turns 1 and 2 on the 24-degree banks of the Speedway, and 20,000-square-feet of animated LED lighting along the speedway's front stretch are synchronized to pulse to a looped holiday soundtrack.
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Visitors can tune their vehicle radio to a specified FM station to hear the music. It's open nightly through Jan. 2.
Clinton Mitchell, who teaches cabinetry and furniture-making classes at Jay M. Robinson High School in Concord, along with fellow teachers Annie Boger, who teaches drama, and Daniel Peck, who teaches an electrical trade class, are in charge of about 40 student volunteers who worked to design, build and staff an indoor display called Santa's Workshop.
The students also designed and built Santa's throne, where pictures with Santa can be taken.
Blake Michetti, 17, a senior at Robinson, is one of the student volunteers involved with Santa's workshop, located in the "South Pole" of the walk-through Christmas Village.
"We've got Santa's complete workshop, from his bench tables to his pegboard with all the tools hanging on it," said Michetti. "We've got Santa's list (a large scrolling list with actual kids' names). We've got the mail sorter for delivering the mail to Santa. You'll see Santa's door with his work boots beside it, and its all hardwood floor. You'll also see a bunch of kids and families doing crafts."
Visitors to the workshop can utilize about a dozen work stations to write letters to Santa, make ornaments and other wooden crafts, as well as purchase wooden toy swords and trains to decorate. Students hold woodworking demonstrations as well. Michetti said there's a ton to do his area, but working with fellow students and teachers on something for public display has been most rewarding.
"You get to see actual reactions of people who don't know you or haven't seen your work before and it really gives you real-life experience," he said. "I've overheard people say 'Wow, this amazing,' but when they find out it was made by high school students, they're even more amazed. I've had people come up and say 'This is the highlight of the show.' They just can't imagine this being built by high school students."
Cabarrus residents Kristen and David Logan brought their almost-2-year-old, Landon, to experience Carolina Christmas on Dec. 13. They said it was a great opportunity to be with family in a fun way. They made an ornament in Santa's Workshop but primarily came to see the lights.
"We though everything was beautiful," Kristen Logan said. "We were excited for (Landon) because he can say the word 'lights.' He loves lights."
Carolina Christmas is expected to have a $10.2 million economic impact on the region and create 80 seasonal jobs. The event also is intended to boost a traditionally slower time for the speedway.
McAdenville's Christmas lights display attracts about 600,000 visitors annually and a 2003 regional study estimated it had an $11.8 million economic impact.
Jim Quick, 42, is the owner of Village Fudge, which has been a permanent fixture at Concord's Carolina Mall for the last 13 years.
Quick, who set up shop as a vendor for the speedway's inaugural event, was able to create six, full-time seasonal jobs to help staff two booths in the walk-through Christmas Village - one in the "North Pole," one in the "South Pole."
His best-sellers include S'mores and marshmallow roasting kits, hot chocolate and a rotating mix of nearly 60 different kinds of fudge and other sweet treats and food.
In the past month, they've sold more than 3,000 cups of hot chocolate and more than 1,000 marshmallow roasting kits. The store generally sells about 13,000 pounds of fudge each year out of its mall location. It also sends fudge to troops overseas each year.