Rooney, 7, was getting a little restless and very hungry after sitting for more than an hour in the back seat of her parent’s SUV in downtown San Antonio on Saturday afternoon.

“It’s a little too long for me,” she said of the line as their vehicle finally approached the beginning of the festivities at Hemisfair for the free holiday drive-thru her parents were taking her to as a surprise.

Little did she know what awaited. Ahead on either side of East Nueva Street were bouncing elves, llamas, a porcupine, a giant menorah, carolers, drum circle, snow flurries, reindeer, and – of course – Santa playing the accordion and pausing for drive-by selfies.

Santa plays the accordion as families pass by. Credit: Emma Cook for the San Antonio Report

Another rare sighting was the snow: more than 110,000 pounds of it blanketed the ground to finish off the holiday vibe, courtesy of Mireles Ice. Centro San Antonio, which partnered with Hemisfair to host the event, has held weekly snow days downtown this month. The last one is next Saturday.

The first 100 cars received a free bag of kettle corn from Pepito’s Italian Ice, but that was quickly gone. Just 45 minutes into the two-hour event, more than 150 cars had snaked through the urban park. Traffic was backed up for at least two miles.

Vehicles filled with eager families fill the avenue through Hemisfair. Credit: Emma Cook for the San Antonio Report

“We decided to make a day out of it … and bring some cheer to this Christmas,” said Rooney’s father, Luis Cienfuegos. With most in-person gatherings canceled during the coronavirus pandemic, there’s little else to do, he said. “It’s a little sad, so we want to make it adventurous.”

Though the adventure started at 3 p.m., cars started lining up at 1 p.m., according to Thea Setterbo, Hemisfair’s director of marketing.

“We really wanted to do something that was free for the community,” Setterbo said. “We know all around San Antonio you can find some great nighttime light installations, but those cost money and not everyone can afford that for their families … We’re so excited to work with a lot of small businesses in San Antonio to bring the activations to life.”

Dallas Koster from Happy Tails Entertainment is draped by a python while she feeds a parrot. Credit: Emma Cook for the San Antonio Report

The carolers were part of the American Caroling Company, decorations came from Mandie’s Balloons, animals from Happy Tails Entertainment, reindeer from Zoomagination, drum circle from The Synergy Studio, jumping elves and nutcrackers on stilts from Aqua Acro, and a sound system from Galaxy Productions.

Hasani, a mild-mannered African porcupine, happily ate snacks and sniffed at passersby as its handler, Dallas Koester of Happy Tails, waved to excited children and adults who paused to take photos. Hasani is accustomed to the attention – his name translates to “handsome” in Swahili.

“Even the grumpiest person will smile when they see animals – especially exotic animals,” Koester said.

Happy Tails, which operates a mobile petting zoo, is usually busy during the holiday season, she said. “We’re just thankful to have work coming because of COVID.”

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Iris Dimmick

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and workforce development. Contact her at