As temperatures drop and snowflakes swirl in the air, thoughts turn to hot chocolate, holiday shopping and ice skating. Thankfully, the Roc Holiday Village is back for its fourth year, bringing all that holiday magic, fun, and more to the Martin Luther King Jr Memorial Park at Manhattan Square. Between December 2 and 23, Roc Holiday Village delivers 16 days of enchanting festivities and celebrations, attracting over 100,000 visitors to downtown Rochester.
We sat down with Kelli Marsh and Jenna Knauf, co-founders of the village, to learn more about what makes the whole experience so special.
How did the Roc Holiday Village Start?
Jenna Knauf: It started when I went to Byrant Park at the end of 2017. I saw the ice skating, big Christmas tree, shopping section and thought, ‘we could do this in Rochester!’ I had already been working closely with the Special Events department at the city to figure out how we could bring Santa back to Rochester, so this felt full circle. I engaged with Kelli and our other partner Sean McCarthy (owner of McCarthy Tents & Events), put together a PowerPoint presentation and brought it to the City’s Special Events and they said, ‘Yes, this is exactly what we want!’ But if we were going to do it, it had to be that year, so everything came together very quickly. From March to December 2018, we incorporated ourselves, created the entire plan and executed the first village.
Kelli Marsh: I traveled to Germany and went to roughly 10 different markets. When I came back to Rochester, I wondered why we didn’t have something like that. I wanted to find something not just for us to do, but for the community. Something for all generations and all backgrounds. We didn’t have it, so we had to make it.
How would you describe the experience of Roc Holiday Village?
Kelli: The word that comes to mind is magical. We work really hard to create an event that doesn’t feel like you’re in downtown Rochester. It doesn’t feel like it’s cold, even though it’s cold. We’ve really tried to make a place that feels special – from twinkling lights to building Santa’s workshop with Magic Mountain, which is a tribute to our history with Midtown Plaza.
We see so many smiling faces, and so many friends and families making memories. This is our fourth year operating and it’s already a tradition for some. I think it’s because it is a magical experience. You can enjoy the holiday and season without any other worries while you’re here.”
Jenna: The reason why we’re so successful in fundraising and having different groups want to be a part of this is because there’s a community feel. No matter who you are, this event is for you. No matter where you came from, you are going to get the same experience. Everyone gets free ice skating and skate rentals, free pictures with Santa, free crafts, live entertainment and carolers.
We also work with the different organizations of Rochester to celebrate four holidays at the Village. The Rochester Kwanzaa Coalition celebrates Kwanzaa with us; the Jewish Federation of Greater Rochester celebrates Hanukkah; the Puerto Rican Festival celebrates Three Kings’ Day and First Bible Baptist Church celebrates Christmas with us.
We are a city of open hearts and open arms. People are happy to give of their time and their energy, knowing that it’s all for a really good reason.
What is different about this year’s Roc Holiday Village?
Kelli: We’ve expanded our footprint, making the festival larger by 15%. That allowed us to bring in three extra igloos. Inside the Triple-O Lodge, there’s going to be a hot cocoa and coffee bar with specialty drinks. We’re going to have Frosty’s Food Court out on Court Street, with food trucks lined up plus picnic tables and heaters in the street so you can sit and eat by the food vendors. We’re really excited to have live reindeer this year! They’ll be walked through the crowds for photo opps. Plus, kids can visit with Anna and Elsa on the stage in the lodge.
Jenna: Santa and his workshop are back!
The workshop features a nod to Rochester’s past, with a section of the original Monorail that ran in Midtown Plaza from 1968-2007.
Kelli: Oh! This year, we’re introducing Explore the Village, which includes three different activities for different age levels. The first element is I Spy Scavenger Hunt geared towards 3 to 7-year-olds. The second is Adventure Map, which is a more advanced version to find clues and colorful pictures to solve a puzzle. The third is Photo Quest, where photo opportunities are pointed out with the hashtag (#rhvquest). We’ll pull a contest winner from all of the selfies shared on social media. This is just one more thing that all ages can participate in.
With 16 dates to choose from, are there special days or events that you recommend individuals check out?
Jenna: The first Saturday (December 3), we are pairing up with the City of Rochester and Downtown Definitely. Following the Liberty Pole Lighting, individuals can walk in a lantern parade to the village with free lanterns from Downtown Definitely. There’s also a marching band that brings Santa in, signaling the official opening of the village.
One of my favorite activities is live band karaoke, which takes place on the three Wednesday nights. It’s karaoke but you’re backed by a full, live band. It’s a blast!
Kelli: We have ice rink events, which are always fun, including the Hockey Skills Competition with the Ryan Callahan Foundation. Even if you don’t participate, it’s really fun to watch the kids compete with the guidance of a former NHL player and Olympian. And they’re all cheering each other on! We’re also doing theme days – one is an Ugly Sweater Day and another is Wear Your Favorite Jersey Day. When you come wearing one of those, we will be picking a winner to receive a free igloo at that time.
Jenna: The four holidays are wonderful experiences to teach kids how other people celebrate their holidays. We’re helping people understand others better.
What makes Roc Holiday Village different from other seasonal activities?
Kelli: You can come and do almost everything for free. And there is something for everyone – outdoor ice skating, outside eating, shopping, live music, or you can go inside and be warm.
Jenna: I think it looks like a Hallmark movie!
What does the Village mean to you both, personally?
Kelli: It means everything. We’ve poured our hearts into this and sacrificed time with our families. This is what we hope our stamp is going to be on the community. I love Rochester and I love doing events in Rochester. It is such a blessing to be a part of this and have the community’s support. There’s no better feeling in the world!
Jenna: It is a dream come true! And an amazing gift that we’re able to work on something the community has embraced and loves. I couldn’t have imagined how fun this would be to create, build and make real. How fun it is to see our friends, families and the community out there enjoying this. It’s really special to say we built a place where people can come and create family memories.
Lastly, what do visitors need to know before they attend?
Jenna: Come dressed for the weather with a smile! It’s important for us to acknowledge the incredible support we’ve had from day one from the City of Rochester and Five Star Bank. There would not be a Village if they didn’t believe in an idea on a piece of paper. Wegmans also came in with the brilliant idea of free ice skating and skate rentals. We’re so thankful for them, as well as all of the new partners this year.
A full list of sponsors and partners is available at: rocholidayvillage.com/sponsors/.
The ROC Holiday Village runs from December 2-23 and is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. It’s recommended to visit the ROC Holiday Village website for additional details, including parking info, events, a map, as well as any changes or closures due to the weather.