Magazine article Parks & Recreation

Lighting the Holidays

Magazine article Parks & Recreation

Lighting the Holidays

Article excerpt

Light displays are big crowd pleasers and a much anticipated tradition for many park and recreation departments.

THIS YEAR MARKS THE 17TH ANNIVERSARY of the City of Gaithersburg, Maryland, annual Winter Lights Festival - an event that draws more than 20,000 cars annually. "I feel like this is my baby," says Elizabeth Poole, Recreation Program Specialist for the City of Gaithersburg, who is responsible for creating the festival. Poole was inspired by a holiday lights display she saw on the Oglebay Resort in Wheeling, West Virginia, nearly two decades ago and she had been looking for something similarly positive she could implement in Gaithersburg. She put together a proposal for starting a holiday lights program, The first program was held in 1991 in Summit Hall Farm Park and consisted of painted wooden figures lit with spotlights. Holiday music was played over a loud speaker system and a wagon ride took visitors through the lit displays.

The festival grew each year and the city continued to add displays. By 1995 the festival had become so popular, the department of parks and recreation, the Mayor, and the city council and staff signed a 10-year contract with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources to secure a new venue. The Winter Lights Festival was moved to Seneca Creek State Park, which has roads that weave through tree-lined grounds and numerous open fields ideal for setting up large light displays for people to enjoy from the comfort of their own cars.

El Paso, Texas, is another city with a big holiday lights festival. This year marks the 75th anniversary of its annual holiday tree lighting and parade. More than 70,000 people attend the annual Holiday Light Parade which kicks off in San Jacinto Plaza when the mayor, (along with a child from Candlelighters - children affected by cancer) flips the switch to turn on the lights on the 54-foot tree, serving as the focal point of the ceremony.

The tree lighting is followed by the Parade of Lights consisting of more than 50 bands, marching units, cheerleading groups, and floats, all of which must be illuminated. Anyone can enter to be in the parade and people sign up in October. Some of the floats come from El Paso's annual Thanksgiving parade (which draws 300,000 people). This year the parade secured the El Paso Employees Federal Credit Union as a major sponsor of the anniversary celebration will include fireworks and laser light show. "The economic downturn has affected everybody" says Nanette Smejkal, Director of Parks and Recreation for El Paso. "Knowing tax funds are few and far between, it underscores the need for partnerships, especially when it's a yearly event. This has been a blessing because they've committed to partnering with us for this year's anniversary and four years beyond. It's a win-win for the community."

The city of El Paso Parks and Recreation Department and the Mayor and City Council all work together to coordinate the event. "We don't do this to make money. We typically break even. It's a gift to the people of El Paso," says Wayne Thornton, public relations and marketing coordinator for City of El Paso Parks and Recreation Department, whose department handles all the logistics. "We as the Department of Parks and Recreation are the caretakers of the event. Our staff will work the month of November to prepare by putting the lights in the trees downtown in the plaza as well as hanging all the decorations. Last year for the first time we had pink bulbs, which was our way of honoring breast cancer awareness, The event is very festive and energizing for everyone," Thornton says. …

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