Santa Claus works his gift-giving magic in only one night, but for the mere mortals behind the scenes of Fayetteville’s 22nd-annual Lights of the Ozarks festival, making the season merry and bright is a much more time-consuming operation.
As many as 3,300 man hours from a crew of 25 went into designing and constructing the displays and stringing and wrapping the Downtown Square with nearly a half million LED lights, according to Fayetteville Parks Maintenance Superintendent Byron Humphry.
“It’s a six-week job to decorate the square,” said Humphry, who has supervised the job the past 10 years. “We begin the first week of October, and we’re tweaking things here and there right up to the Lighting Night event. We want everything to be just right.”
The countdown for the lighting of the square begins shortly before 6 p.m. Friday, Nov. 20, when the lights will blaze on to welcome the most wonderful time of the year to the downtown area. The Lighting Parade follows with festive floats sponsored by local organizations and businesses. Good ol’ Santa Claus will also make his first downtown appearance, ushering in the Christmas season.
Following Friday’s event, the lights will illuminate the square each evening through New Year’s Eve from 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. for families and friends to enjoy. Along with the lights, Christmas and holiday tunes will fill the air from a sound system situated in the Old Post Office building, located on the center of the square. Vendors will sell hot chocolate and other seasonal treats. Families can meet Santa Claus for photos and even visit Rudolph the Reindeer. Carriage rides are also available for those looking to add a bit of romance to the evening.
The lights will shine bright on rainy nights, Humphry said. However, Santa, Rudolph and the carriage horses will take the night off when the weather is wet, according to Ray Dotson of Ozark Mountain Carriages.
Choirs from local schools and churches will perform on Dec 11, 12 and 15 as part of the Choirs on the Square program.
Even after 10 years of working the event, Humphry said he still feels eager and anxious on Lighting Night, like a kid on Christmas Eve.
“When the lights are off and the countdown starts, there is some anxiety,” Humphry said. “We do tests and everything we can to make sure it’s a special night for the people that come out. When the lights do come on, it’s a big relief. When you hear the response of the crowd… It’s audible, the oohs and the aahs. It’s really gratifying to know your work makes people happy.”
Jessica Leonard, communications director of the Fayetteville Visitors Bureau, said the festival is a community event in the truest sense, bringing the city, local businesses and the University of Arkansas together to pull off the event, which draws people from all around the region to the heart of the city.
“We [Advertising and Promotion Commission] help with purchasing new lights over the years and our office also coordinate the festival, working with the vendors, putting together the Lighting Night parade.” Leonard said. “The city provides the manpower to actually design and hang the lights and displays, and the University of Arkansas Hospitality Department’s Meetings and Conventions class handles a lot of the Lighting Night activities.”
Leonard, whose office is on the square, has worked the event for six years and lived in Fayetteville for a decade, but still finds Lights of the Ozarks to be one of her favorite city events.
“The event is no less special to me now,” Leonard said. “It just kind of warms your heart each year. When you have a long day, and you walk out and see the square all covered in lights, it takes the edge off of Daylight Savings Time. You see the smiles on the faces; it’s just uplifting. It makes the hard work all worth it.”
Leonard truly respects the dedication put in by the Parks and Recreation crew in handling the decorations.
“Those guys get to actually design the look of the display, and they do just a wonderful job,” Leonard said. “They aren’t just following someone else’s plan or directions.
“They put a great amount of thought and work into the display, and they really do it different every year. They have free rein. They graph out the changes and move things around, change the colors of the lights. They take a lot of pride in making the event special, and their work is so appreciated.”
Humphry said his crew enjoys putting the display together each year, and the gratification comes from seeing the end product lit and the joy it brings.
“Some years are more challenging than others mainly because of the weather,” Humphry said. “We had great weather this October, and we were able to get the canopies up without any trouble. By the end, of course, we’re ready to move on to other things, but there really isn’t anything like seeing your work make people smile.”
Of course what goes up must come down. It takes the Parks and Recreation Department two weeks in January to remove and store the lights for next season, Humphry said.
Hazel Hernandez, special events manager for the Visitors Bureau who has coordinated the festival and all the other downtown events for the past two years, beamed with pride when speaking about those who worked to put the festival together.
“There is a lot of community pride centered on Lights of the Ozarks,” Hernandez said. “Many families make it a part of their Christmas and holiday traditions every year. Everyone who works on this knows how special it is to so many families, and it’s fantastic how the city, the UA, the businesses and the community pull together to make it a special time.”
Hernandez said the festival is a destination event for the city, bringing people not only to see the lights but also to shop and visit local restaurants.
“I get calls from people regularly with questions,” Hernandez said. “Just the other day, I had a call from a family visiting for Thanksgiving, wanting to make sure the lights would be on and that there would be carriage rides. It’s great to be part of an event that provides so much joy for so many families. It’s such a source of family fun for the community.”
Special nights are not uncommon during the Lights of the Ozarks according to Hernandez and Dotson.
“We’ve been doing the carriage rides on the square for about a decade, and by my count, we’ve had 18 proposals and two actual weddings with the preacher and the wedding party right there in the carriage,” Dotson said.
Hernandez confirmed that there was a wedding on the square last year, and that she has fielded a call for a possible wedding on the square for New Year’s Eve.
“It’s really sweet,” Hernandez said. “That couple actually met at Lights of the Ozarks.”
Leonard said while Lighting Night is special with its countdown and the excitement of the square being lit for the first time of the season, she feels each trip to the square is unique in and of itself.
“Every time you go, it really is a different experience,” Leonard said. “You’ll notice something different each time or you get experience a local choir. Lighting Night will be crowded. Thousands will be here. It’s nice to visit on a weeknight when you can take your time and just leisurely stroll around and soak it all in.”
Dotson, who provides carriages for events around the country, said Lights of the Ozarks is one of his favorite events to work.
“We’ve been a part of it now for long enough that we’ve actually seen kids grow up and even bring their own children for rides or photos,” Dotson said. “That makes it fun. They get to know the horses by name. We have customers that ask for a certain horse and wait for her or him. We’ll be using Blondie and Buster and Jasmine there again this year. Blondie is a favorite because she has a lot of action, bobbing her head and shaking her mane.”
Dotson did report that Duchess, the hot chocolate-drinking horse, had to be retired.
“She would gulp it down if you would let her,” Dotson said.
He also said the lighted Cinderella carriages will be back.
“The little girls just love them,” Dotson said. “Sometimes they will even dress up in their princess outfits for the ride.”
Carriage rides have a base price of $25 per couple.
Dotson’s business also provides an opportunity for children and even families to take a photo with Santa Clause and Rudolph, who goes by the name Double Ought for the first 10 months out of the year.
“We got Rudolph when he was 10 weeks old, and he’s a lovable old fellow now,” Dotson said. “He’s Double Ought the rest of the year because his wildlife tag had two zeroes on it when we got him.”
Photos with Santa are $5 per sitting, and it’s $2 to visit with Rudolph.
Even with the best planning, events with the scope of the Lights of the Ozarks have their issues. Just last year the event experienced its own “Miracle on 34th Street” moment when Santa suffered a hip injury two days before Lighting Night.
“It did put us in a bind for a little bit,” said Dotson. “But it worked out. We’ve got a new Santa this year whom we’re really pleased with.”
Humphry said after 22 years, the festival is a fairly smooth-running affair.
“We had one year where a quadrant of lights went down for a short time, but we got it fixed and back up,” Humphry said. “Converting to LED lights has made a great difference both in the amount of energy needed and with maintenance. We’re now 100 percent LED.”
Leonard and Hernandez said occasionally the sound system in the Old Post Office malfunctions.
“It’s an old building to say the least,” Leonard said. “There’s been a time or two when Hazel has had to run down here in her jammies and get the music up and running.”
Hernandez laughed and said, “Yes, I put on my stocking cap and went to work.”
As Friday’s Lighting Night approaches there is an excitement building behind the scenes.
“It really is a big night for all of us and the city,” Humphry said. “The event brings so much joy to so many. I think everyone that works on it takes pride in bringing a little more joy to the season.”