The children, snug in sweaters and winter coats, ran to Santa Claus, kicking up sand and shouting hellos.
St. Nick waved from the back of a pickup truck trailed by a lanky snowman, SpongeBob SquarePants and Clifford the Big Red Dog.
Loudspeakers amplified a recording of “Here Comes Santa Claus,” which could be heard at least as far as the water’s edge, even over the hard-crashing surf.
It was not a typical day at the beach.
With temperatures in the low 50s and wind biting ears and reddening cheeks, about 160 children celebrated an early Christmas Dec. 14 at the Sandbar Restaurant, 100 Spring Ave., Anna Maria.
The children, along with parents, teachers and aides, were the guests at the 16th annual Lawton Chiles Kids Christmas Party.
The late Lawton Chiles, who served as a U.S. senator and Florida governor, started the party in 1998. Son Ed Chiles, owner of the Sandbar, BeachHouse and MarVista restaurants, carries on the tradition with his staff.
Organizers said the attendance set a party record.
Children arrived at about 10:30 a.m., some in cars with their parents but most on buses from the Healthy Families Manatee and Head Start programs.
Anna Maria Island Privateers welcomed party guests with beads and “argh” and “merry Christmas, matey.”
On the Sandbar patio, children decorated Christmas ornaments, chased the Cat in the Hat, danced with SpongeBob and watched Snowbird and Sparky clown around before dining on chicken tenders and french fries.
Shortly before noon, Santa Claus arrived, riding in the bed of a Manatee County Sheriff’s Office pickup truck. Rough weather forced him to cancel plans to arrive via a U.S. Coast Guard boat.
Several shivering teachers said they envied Santa’s heavy red suit and fur trim, while children crowded around the jolly guy to whisper secret wishes in his ear.
Santa then visited one-on-one with each child, presenting them with a wrapped toy, a holiday outfit and a Publix gift certificate for a Christmas dinner.
The party, overseen by Sandbar manager Patti McKee, is presented with the support of the Chiles family, the Chiles restaurant group and a number of volunteers.
“I want to add my personal thank you to those of you who have given so generously,” said Ed Chiles. “My family and the entire Chiles group family wishes you and yours a wonderful holiday season.”