Holiday Miracle

When Jack Miller Created Christmas at the Princess, It Proved to Be Not Only a Real-Life Fantasy but Also a Lifesaver for the Resort

Cocoa Beach, Florida, about 50 miles from Walt Disney World, is where Fairmont Scottsdale Princess General Manager Jack Miller grew up. 

As a kid, he watched the construction of the fantasy land inspired by the man who had always been an icon in Miller’s life. 

Decades later, as an esteemed hospitality veteran who had run many successful hotels, Miller took on the task of breathing new life into a storied but floundering resort in the desert. Here, the kid who was raised in the shadow of the happiest place on Earth would create a happy ending worthy of fairy tales. 

Since 2010, the famed Christmas at the Princess has been a holiday staple, where families flock to have every sense indulged amid a dreamy universe. Miller came up with the concept that has become more than an event.

“When we do something, it will be first class—an experience they will remember,” Miller says. “Those memories become tradition.” 

This is the story of how Christmas saved the Princess. And it all started with an idea in the middle of the night. 

When Miller moved to Arizona in 2009, the recession had cost people their homes and hotels were going bankrupt. The sputtering economy took its toll on the Princess. It had been surpassed by newer competitors and while still prestigious, the luster was lost. 

The goal was to move forward better than ever. Miller believed it could be done. 

“I tend to see things how they can be, not how they are,” he says. 

At 3:40 a.m. one morning, Miller was awakened by a vivid idea. With a bedside tablet, he wrote down the ethos for what would become Christmas at the Princess. A jaw-dropping $90,000 tree as a centerpiece was part of it.

“I wanted a tree that was Disney-esque and wanted it to be an experience in and of itself,” Miller says. 

Miller recalls others expressing concern over a purchase the resort could not afford at the time if the event did not succeed.

“Well, then that’s just another $90,000 we can’t pay,” was Miller’s response.

The first Tree Lighting at Christmas at the Princess in 2010 drew 1,200 people in a single-day event. Today, Tree Lighting spans two days and draws 9,000 attendees. What began as a way to appeal to kids who would bring their parents has grown into a multigenerational tradition and a hallmark of the resort.

The 2010 event allowed them to pay for that tree. And more. A huge revenue generator from the start, it played a key role in the Princess' return to greatness. 

But what Miller really cherishes is seeing families soak in the Christmas festivities on a scale they have never seen. 

“The kids are so mesmerized with Santa, Winter Wonderland, and Twinkle Town. Just seeing the awe in their eyes …” Miller says. 

At 15, Miller was the president of his class and in charge of organizing prom. He was working as a dishwasher at a hotel and his boss, who would become his mentor, overheard him negotiating the event with the hotel’s catering manager. His boss was impressed.

“I think you really have the passion for hospitality,” Miller recalls his boss saying. “That was the beginning.” 

With his mentor’s guidance, Miller worked every hotel job from bell stand to cook. After graduating from high school, he headed to Memphis, where his former boss was running a hotel. It was 1974. Miller was making minimum wage.

Miller’s work brought him to other states as he climbed the ranks quickly, learning every aspect of hotel work and leadership. At 22, he earned his first general manager position at a Texas hotel.

Over his career, Miller ran multiple InterContinental Hotels properties. He returned to Florida and was the general manager for a Miami hotel when the property’s owner, who also owns the Fairmont, asked Miller if he’d be willing to restore the Princess to its former glory. 

He envisioned Scottsdale as a great place to raise his children, who were young at the time. Working with a five-star hotel was also appealing. Miller, his wife Shea, and their four children made the move.  

With a lineup of holiday events that have raised the profile of the Fairmont along with a bevy of other touches, it’s clear Miller’s mission has been accomplished. 

Five years ago, a woman attending Christmas at the Princess recognized Miller and shouted, “That’s the guy who started this!”

Miller introduced himself to her and they had a brief conversation, during which the woman turned to her friend. 

“She says, ‘He is the Walt Disney of Arizona,’” Miller says. “I may have teared up for a moment.”

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