Stringing up all those lights at Longview Lake

Mike Genet

By the time Halloween rolled around, a crew of Jackson County Parks + Rec employees already had spent a month setting up the expansive Christmas in the Park lights show. 

The 34th annual free drive-thru display in the Longview Lake campground opens to the public Wednesday, with more than 600,000 lights and 175 displays, and will run through Dec. 31. Last year's display welcomed a record of more than 300,000 visitors. 

A worker installs some of the thousands upon thousands of lights that make up Christmas in the Park. Setting up the event takes weeks. It kicks off Wednesday night at Longview Lake Park.

After the campground closes Sept. 30, Parks + Rec staff will start the next day hauling the various displays and light strings out of storage. Michele Newman, department director, said it takes the crew of 13 about 45 days to set it up. 

“We have an incredibly talented group of individuals; they single-handedly design, create and set up Christmas in the Park,” Newman said during an early November set-up day. “Today's a beautiful, sunny day, but they work through no matter what kind of weather.” 

By that time, just about all displays in the campground were done, and some workers had started on the 100-foot lighted tunnel. The early displays seen along the approach come next. 

“We're to the part where everything's basically finished, and we're just looking making final adjustments and repairs,” crew leader Mark Hite said at the time. That used to include having to pinpoint individual trouble bulbs 

“The good thing with LED, if one goes out, you replace the whole thing,” Hite said. “We've been using LEDs for five-six years.” 

Technically, work for any year's Christmas in the Park begins Jan. 2, after the show closes, when some staffers get a last look. 

“We drive through and see everything, and we decide what we want to, what to change, what to move to relocate to the approach,” Newman said. “Then we reconvene in February and start planning.” 

“We sit down as a group, work together on an idea, and somebody makes a drawing up,” Hite said. 

Crews use metal caging for displays, and the campground trees get plenty of use. 

“The natural aesthetics of the campground is what really makes it work,” Newman said. “We fill the trees with lights.” 

The lights show not only changes, it also grows from one year to the next. Some displays might get moved from the show proper in the campground to the approach, but Parks + Rec never takes one out, Newman said. 

“Parks + Rec staffer Marcy Caldwell said people will use social media to let the department know their favorite displays or suggest something. 

“Until about five or six years ago we didn't have much on the approach,” Caldwell said. 

“The new transformers we installed help the campground, but it also allows more displays on the entrance path,” Newman said. Given that some nights an extra-long line of cars forms back to Third Street or even View High Drive, giving spectators an early taste is good. 

“We try to keep it moving as best we can,” Newman said of the traffic flow. “We know some people wait an hour or more, and the police help especially at View High and Third.” 

Christmas in the Park is free, though voluntary exit donations are accepted. A portion of proceeds then gets divided among 38 area charities, the county says. Since the show opened in 1987, almost 3 million people have driven through Christmas in the Park, and more than $1.2 million has been donated from visitors to more than 1,000 local charities.