By Anne Morrissy
*NOTE: This original article ran in last winter’s issue. Updates have been made below to reflect the cruise’s 2017 schedule.
If you visit Lake Coeur d’Alene in Idaho around the holidays, you’ll have a hard time missing the “Journey to the North Pole” Cruise . For 18 years, this extremely popular holiday event has taken children of all ages on trips across the lake to “the North Pole” to visit Santa . Along the way, according to the Coeur d’Alene Press, visitors get to “view more than 250 brilliant displays along The Coeur d’Alene Resort Boardwalk … all created from more than 1 .5 million colorful lights.” The annual winter event is so popular that ABC’s Good Morning America named it one of the nation’s best holiday destinations.
BRINGING THE CRUISE TO LAKE GENEVA
When Gage Marine President Bill Gage first heard about the Lake Coeur d’Alene holiday cruise concept, he realized it was an event his Lake Geneva Cruise Line was uniquely positioned to recreate in the Lake Geneva area. To get the ball rolling, he named Nancy Waspi director of development for the Santa Cruise, as they had decided to call the program, and with her energy and enthusiasm, the project immediately began to blossom.
“I had mentioned that it would be great to have a charity attached to the Santa Cruise,” she explains. Initially Waspi and Gage looked into forming a new charity organization to benefit the local community, but as they began to research the current nonprofit landscape in the area, they discovered that Walworth County already had a significant number of charities. “We realized that what we need to do is to help the existing charities,” Waspi says. So she and Gage conceived an umbrella foundation that will benefit existing organizations doing charity work in the Walworth County area. “We decided to call the foundation the Santa Cause,” she says. Together with the Santa Cruise, the Santa Cause hopes to raise more than $100,000 this year for local nonprofit groups.
TWELVE CHARITIES TO BENEFIT
In its inaugural year, the Santa Cause benefited the “Twelve Charities of Christmas,” an intentional nod to the popular Christmas carol “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” In 2016, twelve local charities received funds from the Santa Cause, including: Holiday Home Camp; Open Arms/Dan Green Foundation; George Williams College; the Walworth County Boys & Girls Club, Agape House; Conference Point Camp/ Lake Geneva Youth Camp; Norman B. Barr Camp; Walworth County Alliance for Children/Treehouse Child and Family Center; the Geneva National Foundation; Water Safety Patrol; the Walworth County Food Pantry; and the Otis Green Foundation.
In 2017, the twelve local charities receiving funds are: Holiday Home Camp, Open Arms Free Clinic/Dan Green Touch a Life Heal a Heart, Inspiration Ministries, Boys and Girls Club of Walworth County, Agape House, Conference Point/Lake Geneva Youth Camp, Norman Barr, Tree House, Geneva National Foundation for Special Needs, Water Safety Patrol, WC Resource Center & Food Pantry, and Otis Green Foundation.
CHRISTMAS TREES RAISE AWARENESS
To raise awareness and funds for these local organizations, Gage Marine is clearing out the wooden boat showroom and Waspi, along with a decorating committee, a lighting committee and representatives from the twelve charities, will transform that space into a Winter Wonderland Tree Festival.
Each charity will decorate a Christmas tree and use the space surrounding it to promote awareness of their causes. Riders of the Santa Cruise will tour the Tree Festival prior to departing on their adventure, and the Tree Festival will also be open to the public. Visitors to the Tree Festival will be able to purchase books of raffle tickets; each tree will be associated with themed raffle prizes and visitors can choose how to “spend” their raffle tickets. “In the Tree Festival, we’ll be serving hot chocolate and snacks,” explains Waspi.
After touring the Tree Festival, riders will board the Grand Belle of the Lake (or the Lady of the Lake on high-volume days,) for a 40-minute winter cruise on Geneva Lake. “The boat will be decorated like Santa’s sleigh,” she says. “There will be people dressed as elves and snow queens on board, and there will be letters to write to Santa, and a mailbox to put them in.”
LIGHTING UP THE NIGHT
“The cruise will leave the winter harbor in Williams Bay,” Waspi continues. “As the boat cruises along the north shore, houses will be lit up and we’ll be telling a story about Santa and the North Pole.” Partnering with the local camps and families who own lakefront property along the route, Waspi and her team have arranged for light displays to illuminate the shore. The cruise will come to a halt in front of Holiday Home Camp, where Waspi is working with a New York City-based set designer to transform one of the storage buildings into “Santa’s hideaway.” “At that point, Santa will come out and read the names of all the children on the cruise,” she says.
This year, the Santa Cruises will take place 7 days a week, November 24-December 30, 2017 (except December 24 & 25). There will be four departures per day beginning at 4:30 p.m. Waspi is already expecting a good turnout. “Last year, we put a boat in the water just to test it out, so we could see what [turnout might be] in the cold weather,” she says. “The first weekend in December, with almost no advertising, we had over 1,000 riders.”
Waspi is also working with the Village of Williams Bay and the Williams Bay Business Association to facilitate decoration of Edgewater Park and the local downtown businesses. “They are all on board to help get downtown Williams Bay decorated, to make it kind of a destination this year,” she says. In fact, local family and business support has been key to making this ambitious new event possible. Waspi began planning the event by soliciting support from “Founding Families” and “Angel Sponsors” and “Snowmen Sponsors,” including Lake Lawn Resort, Geneva National, The Ridge Hotel, Harbor Shores, The Cove of Lake Geneva, The Baker House and The Abbey Resort. “It’s really a Walworth County event,” she says. “It’s going to help the entire Geneva Lake area.”
Sara Nichols, Executive Director of Open Arms Free Clinic in Elkhorn, agrees. “We’re still a new organization — we’re only celebrating our fourth year this year, so we love the idea of having the opportunity for more public awareness of our charity,” she says. She is also hopeful that their partnership with the Dan Green Foundation on a Dr. Seuss-themed Christmas tree and raffle prizes will enhance their fundraising this year. “We rely on private donations and grants to stay open, and [the Tree Festival] gave us a new opportunity for fundraising.”
Although the event is only in its first year, Waspi foresees the Santa Cruise and the Tree Festival becoming an annual event that gets bigger each year. “When it comes to Christmas, everyone’s a child,” she says. “We think people are really going to love this. And it’s a great way to express that holiday spirit, the spirit of giving back.”
For more information on the Santa Cause, visit SantaCauses.org. To buy tickets to the Santa Cruise, visit santacruiselakegeneva.com.