For a long time, though, she didn't get to see the holiday lights.
L'Donna was the owner of a horse-carriage business called M.J. Surreys LTD until 1998, when she was accused of plotting murder and hiring a hit man. According to court records, L'Donna initially spoke to her bodyguard, Shawn Butner, of wanting to kill her longtime nemesis, Mary Gooden, who owned the Plaza's other horse-carriage operation. Later, L'Donna talked to Butner about letting Gooden live and instead killing L'Donna's stepfather, Gene Hall. When L'Donna's plot turned away from Hall and focused on a man named John Encell, described in court as L'Donna's boyfriend, Butner decided that L'Donna was serious and reported the threats to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Coached by an ATF agent, Butner wore a hidden recorder and taped his conversations with L'Donna, during which she detailed how he was to be paid $5,000 for killing Encell. Butner testified that L'Donna gave him a gun.
Butner, who was paid $4,116 by the ATF for his testimony, would later be sentenced to jail time for testifying under a false identity (his real name is Tom Butner, not Shawn), but that wasn't enough to convince a judge to grant L'Donna a new trial.
Before she was charged with illegally transferring a gun to be used for murder and arranging murder-for-hire, L'Donna was known as a gregarious animal lover who enjoyed media attention. In 1997, when two accidents involving horse carriages on the Plaza drew the ire of animal activists, a Kansas City, Missouri, City Council committee considered stiffening the regulations for carriage operators. In response, the petite L'Donna put on a pair of high heels and pulled her own 400-pound carriage full of passengers up and down Plaza streets to prove that her horses weren't overworked. Footage of the stunt aired on CNN.
After L'Donna's arrest, local news outlets buzzed with tales of the longstanding feud between L'Donna and Gooden. Plaza security guards complained of constantly having to break up disputes between the women, who had set up their ticket booths within 50 feet of each other near Jefferson Street and Nichols Road.
L'Donna pleaded not guilty to the charge of plotting a murder, claiming that she had only played along when Butner brought up the idea of killing Gooden, Hall and Encell; she said she thought it was a game. "He's a wimp," she said of Butner.
But a jury found her guilty, and in November 1998, U.S. District Judge Fernando J. Gaitan Jr. sentenced her to 10 years in federal prison.
She was sent to the women's Federal Medical Center Fort Worth, Texas. There, she lived in a high-rise in a minimum-security ward where prisoners with good behavior had keys to their own rooms. As someone who had enjoyed wearing jewelry and makeup, L'Donna says she learned to consider simple things like a hair clip to be a special treat.
While she was at FMC, L'Donna's carriage permits lapsed, racking up a debt of $7,243 to the city. Her longtime attorney, Jim Wirken, sold the business, along with 20 horses and 18 carriages, on her behalf to a man named Woody Allenbrand.
L'Donna says she wrote a letter to Allenbrand to let him know the various characteristics and personalities of the horses he'd purchased — which ones were afraid of booming bass from car speakers, which ones detested skateboarders or the sound of a violin. She says she never got a response.
L'Donna was later transferred to the women's prison in Topeka, where there were more beds. There, she helped train Labrador and golden retrievers to be service dogs for disabled people.
Last year, having served eight years of her sentence, L'Donna was released to a halfway house in Leavenworth. Today she lives in the metro and works a customer-service job; she'd prefer not to say where. And she maintains her innocence.
She visits the Plaza two or three times a month to see the horses and drivers still working for her old company, now called Surreys on the Plaza. (Gooden's company is undergoing an ownership transition and is now called Pride of Kansas City Carriages.)
One recent evening, a bundled-up L'Donna greeted a dappled gray horse named Sam near Surreys' red ticket booth, on the east side of Halls.
"Oh, my, my, my," L'Donna cooed at Sam one day in early December. The horse's hooves were coated with corn oil and sprinkled with blue and silver glitter. "What a sweet boy."
Sam wore reindeer ears and nudged his handler, Shawn Stookesberry, roughly in the shoulder. Sam seemed agitated, the air huffing from his nostrils turning to steam, but when L'Donna put out her ungloved hand, he calmed down and checked her for treats.
"He's a woman's horse," Stookesberry said. "He likes women better. I drive him because I'm light-handed."
"Don't you have any special treats for him?" L'Donna asked, somewhat accusingly. Stookesberry, who once worked for L'Donna, ignored the question as a little girl stepped aboard the white carriage, followed by her mother.
"I enjoyed that life. No evening was ever the same because the people were different," L'Donna said dreamily. But in her absence, much has changed. A carriage ride that used to cost $15 is now $60, and the Plaza has lost some of its unique character.
"There aren't as many specialty stores to come down to," L'Donna said. "You can go to a Victoria's Secret anywhere. But it's still as beautiful as ever."
L'Donna waved goodbye to Sam and headed toward Fiorella's Jack Stack Barbecue for a cup of coffee at the bar. "Absolutely everyone I've come across has been friendly," she said. "I haven't encountered anyone negative in any way." As if planted to prove her point, a woman stared at L'Donna for a moment, then asked her name. When the women recognized each other, they embraced warmly. They'd been acquaintances brought together by a mutual friend who used to make L'Donna's costumes: Mrs. Claus for Christmas, a pink-rhinestone pants suit for Easter.
"You look like a million bucks," the woman told L'Donna. "You always were a snappy dresser."
A picture of L'Donna in her 40s showed a trim woman with a cascade of honey-colored hair and flushed cheeks, as though she'd just jumped off a ski lift. Today, she is nearing 60. The corners of her eyes are wrinkled, and there are gray strands in her long hair. But when she talks about her horses or about the little girls she carted in Cinderella carriages on their birthdays, she lights up.
"I had a tiara that I would let the birthday girl wear, and a hot-pink feather boa, and everyone got to choose a magic ring," she says, drawing out the last words.
"And being Mrs. Claus — that was fun."