“They ruined Christmas!” starts Mike K. of Berkeley’s Yelp review of Tilden Regional Park Merry-Go-Round posted on Dec. 11.

That is how I was feeling when my children and I headed up to see Christmas Fantasy this weekend. While my daughter warned me that her friends were whispering on the playground at school that it was “lame” this year, I couldn’t forgo tradition. It was not the same, but it also not the same owners.

For the past decade, hundreds a families have made their way through the windy roads of Tilden Park at night to ride the carousel in the freezing cold, pick out ornaments from the dozen or so themed Christmas trees, sip on hot chocolate, and visit with one of the only African-American Santas in the East Bay.

In March the East Bay Regional Parks awarded the management of the century-old carousel to Sycamore Concessions, under the watchful eyes of Doreen and Steve Kwansnicki. Christmas Fantasy regulars became nervous as the holidays inched closer, former operator Terry Oyarzun had created something special that became a tradition for many families.

“We have been telling people who call it’s not going to be the same,” said Steve Kwasnicki.

The Kwasnickis did not inherit or purchase any of the old decorations – basically they started from scratch. They have tried to reach out to Oyarzun, but have not been successful. And if they Yelp reviews are a hint at how the new look is going over with the public, it is causing emotional distress for many families.

Only a few Christmas trees can be found inside the building that houses the Tilden Park Merry-Go-Round. Ornaments are still available for purchase.

New look and feel

Kwansnicki says he and his wife began preparing for Christmas Fantasy in November with the fear that they would never be able to measure up to what Oyarzun created. The Kwansnickis were not prepared for visitor’s expectations and vocal disappointments. Steve says his wife was in tears after the first Yelp reviews came in.

“We don’t want to compete with what Terry had done,” said Kwansnicki. Adding that there are things that were done in the past that will never be recreated. Trees no longer can line every inch of the building – they block potential emergency exits. The park will not let them put anything on the roof of the building. And the heavy rain a few weeks ago put a curb on their plans to string massive amount of lights on the huge tree at the entrance of the merry-go-round.

They did keep the tradition of having a non-white Santa Claus for the kids to visit with. Children can enjoy a visit with a Latino Santa.

Looking forward

“We have ruined a lot of people’s Christmas,” said Steve Kwasnicki. It was not his intention, adding that many of the complaints have hit is staff hard. “I have to give it to my staff they are doing a wonderful job.”

He hopes that in the end the Christmas Fantasy faithful will understand that while the decorations have changed they are working to make the carousel and ride a superior experience. Much of their time has been spent sprucing up the mechanics and the look of the animals on the 103-year-old machine.

The couple plans to continue to decorate for Christmas, even adding in Easter and Halloween into the mix.

Details: Christmas Fantasy at Tilden Regional Park will continue through Dec. 23rd, 3–8:30 p.m. Tickets to ride are $2.

This article originally appeared in Bring Them Along, a website dedicated to finding the balance between having kids but not always wanting to do kid-oriented stuff.

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Tara Taylor is a Bay Area freelance journalist.
Tara Taylor is a Bay Area freelance journalist.