A talking Big Bird fronted the Sesame Street-themed bus

One man enlisted his daughter to draw intricate flowers for his team’s tropical theme. Another painted his entire head blue to go with his group’s motif. There was an animatronic Big Bird with a talking beak, a red-and-white striped candy store with real treats, and a 10-foot-tall lion face with glowing eyes.

All of these were splashed across what’s usually the most mundane sight on Philly streets: the humble SEPTA bus.

The seventh annual “Festibus” competition brought out the creativity of transit workers from around the city, as each bus district competed for top honors for the best-dressed vehicle of the holiday season — and the results were a huge hit.

Papa Smurf’s nose? That’s an exercise ball Credit: Mark Henninger / Imagic Digital

At Love Park in mid-December, crowds spilling out of Christmas Village lined up to walk through and vote for their favorite. From the windows to the roof to the seats inside, each of the buses was totally decked out.

It wasn’t easy. “We worked on this for 23 days, on our own time,” said Avis Garrett, a 10-year SEPTA employee from Midvale District. Her team’s creation, “A Smurfy Holiday,” was made with 85% recyclable material, Garrett said.

SEPTA workers Steve Sanders, Avis Garrett and Jeremiah Berry Credit: Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

Each group was given a $200 budget for decorations, per the competitors — but most teams reached into their own pockets to make their vision a reality.

“All the artwork you see around the bus, all the murals, that’s done by my daughter,” said Frank Toscani, a 24-year transit veteran who was wearing a Santa suit turned into a muscle shirt to go with the island theme.

Brianna Toscani and her dad Frank, a 24-year SEPTA employee Credit: Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

In the past, Toscani has done commercial themes like Scooby Doo and Frozen, but this time he and his Victory District partners decided to go with something more original.

Their colorful “Tropical Holiday Bliss” bus was a welcome change from the external freeze, and music rocked the sultry interior — visitors were dancing and shaking their hips as they stepped back out into the cold

The Toscanis made their bus into a tropical party Credit: Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

In official judging held at the beginning of the month, the “Nightmare Before Christmas” from Callowhill District was given the top prize, for its clever Halloween-esque black-walled front transitioning to a jolly red-and-green pattern in the back.

‘Nightmare Before Christmas’ won the judges’ top prize Credit: Mark Henninger / Imagic Digital

The popular vote at Love Park — surely influenced by all the kids traipsing through with their parents in tow — went to the “A Magical Disney Christmas” from Comly District. The bus featured cutouts of what seemed like even more characters than the media conglomerate packs into its slick ads.

Another fan favorite was “Christmas Eve on Sesame Street,” where team members posed in full Muppet mascot wear for pics in front of the Big Bird face emblazoned with a motto celebrating the kid show’s 50th anniversary.

The team from the Disney bus, the fan favorite, with various other characters Credit: Mark Henninger / Imagic Digital

Each of the buses used for the competition were slated for decommissioning, according to Garrett, of the Smurf bus, “so it doesn’t affect the rider experience at all.” She described the whole thing as a labor of love that’s well worth the effort.

“Once the people get on,” Garrett said, “and feel the love we put in, that’s why we do it. You never know where someone is coming from, and to see the smiles on people’s faces? That’s the best.”

Candy cane theme, real candy inside Credit: Mark Henninger / Imagic Digital

Danya Henninger is director and editor of Billy Penn at WHYY, where she oversees the team, all editorial decisions, and all revenue generation — including the membership program. She is a former food...