TBT: How Ford’s Christmas Fantasy Earned Its Legendary Reputation

Dec 07, 2023

Seventy years ago, Ford launched one of its greatest creations at the famed Rotunda building, but it wasn’t a shiny new vehicle – it was an extravagant holiday event known as Christmas Fantasy. 

The wildly popular but short-lived Christmas Fantasy was created in 1953 following a renovation at the once-relocated Rotunda. More than 600,000 visitors attended Christmas Fantasy each year. They were welcomed into the Rotunda by 40-foot-tall Christmas trees, while elves at Santa’s Workshop worked a moving toy assembly line. Children visited Santa in his multistory castle and live reindeer were also part of the exhibit. A 15,000-piece hand-carved miniature animated circus was added in 1958. The Rotunda’s inner court housed a cathedral facade featuring carillon music. There was also a life-size Nativity scene. Christmas Fantasy was also known for its elaborate animated scenes. 

For several years, the display included thousands of dolls dressed in clothes – some of which were hand-made by members of the Ford Motor Company Girls’ Club. The dolls were later donated to the Detroit Goodfellows organization, which distributed them to underprivileged children.

Christmas Fantasy ran for nine years until a devastating fire closed the Rotunda in 1962. During preparation for that year’s installment, a fire caused by a heater used for roofing repairs ignited the building, which was quickly covered in flames, and the roof and walls collapsed. The fire quickly burned through the Rotunda’s dome roof, spreading to the interior and consuming $250,000 worth of Christmas decorations, among multimillion-dollar losses, in the approximately 90 minutes it burned.

After the fire

Ford tried to re-create the fun of Christmas Fantasy in the years that followed, by welcoming the public to a Christmas tree lighting ceremony outside what was then known as the Central Office Building (now World Headquarters). Approximately 40,000 people attended in 1962, and a choir of nearly 2,000 local students, church groups and the Ford Chorus led the audience in caroling. Santa lit the 75-foot Christmas tree, and the exhibit also included a life-size Nativity scene. The lights in the office windows behind the display were arranged to spell “Merry Christmas.” The ceremonies were discontinued in 1964, but the displays remained for several years.

While the Christmas Fantasy may no longer take place, its legacy lives on in the memories of the many who visited as young children and continue to share it with younger generations.  

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