By Renée Jean, Business and Tourism Reporter
Gillette has never advertised its Christmas light display, yet every year the Festival of Lights attracts more than 15,000 cars from around the region to experience the annual event at Cam-plex Park.
While the display won’t likely be mentioned on glossy magazine pages touting this or that “best” holiday light display, it nevertheless offers much of what you’d expect to find in a best-in-class show.
There’s a 40-foot Eiffel Tower that’s part of a huge 12 Days of Christmas display. There are multiple tunnels of lights, well-timed to a musical set available on the FM dial.
There’s also a candy cane lane and funny sliding penguins diving into an igloo. Frolicking polar bears toss snowballs between them while a lucky elf lights the star on a Christmas tree.
That’s just a fraction of what dazzles festival-goers who return to see how the display evolves every year.
It Takes A Village
While no one has counted the number of lights in the Festival of Lights, Campbell County Parks and Recreation Director Kevin Geer said it’s easily 1 million, if not more. It’s a display that takes an entire community to create.
Each Christmas scene in the display has a community sponsor backing it. A decoration will generally last about five years before needing a new sponsor.
But Geer doesn’t have to worry about getting new sponsors. The event has been become so popular that sponsors call him, vying to get their names on their favorites.
The decorations, meanwhile, are stored in sheds and garages all over town, as there’s not any one facility that has room to store them all.
It takes a couple of weeks to drag all the festival scenes out and get them to Cam-plex Park. That doesn’t include standing all the decorations up and getting them connected to electricity, nor does it include stringing lights on the trees and placing other decorative elements.
The Festival of Lights is not something Gillette has ever thought about publicizing, which may be why mainstream media has missed this little gem in northeast Wyoming.
“It’s something that our community in the region is aware of,” Geer said. “But we really haven’t publicized it a whole lot. We haven’t pushed it because it’s free.”
Despite that lack of publicity, people know a good thing when they see it, and they spread the information around to their friends. Thanks to that word-of-mouth campaign, more than 15,000 cars will roll through the display each year to enjoy lights and holiday music on the radio.
Some cars also will stop to watch the drive-in movie screen, which has a light show set to music.
It’s a perfect setup to impress children, grandkids or even a date. A little hot cocoa is all that’s needed to complete the night and lift everyone’s holidy spirits to the stars.
Not Just Lights
But Gillette’s Festival of Lights is not the only thing community elves are working on.
Fred Neugebauer starts the transformation of Spirit Hall Ice Arena into a satellite North Pole in about the same time frame that Festival of Lights is going up.
Even on Thanksgiving Day, Neugebauer can often be found working on the rink.
A Christmas tree is placed in the center of the ice skating venue and decorated. Then lights are strung from the ceiling with care for the Skate Around the Christmas Tree event, which attracts all sorts of excited children and breathless parents.
The event opens Dec. 23 and runs through Dec. 28. The skate sessions allow 150 people at a time into Spirit Hall. And it’s often a sold-out show, particularly Christmas Eve, when Santa drops in and Ms. Claus to offers a free sugar cookie to all the guests.
Campbell County Parks and Recreation Superintendent Adam Gibson, meanwhile, has been hard at work on Gillette’s Secret Santa program, which shops for hundreds of children who otherwise might not get any Christmas toys.
At the same time, front desk staff at the Campbell County Recreation Center help deliver letters to Santa, each one of which is personally answered.
More Lights Please
One thing Geer said has been discussed at some point is adding the world’s tallest Christmas decoration to the Festival of Lights.
“Pennsylvania has a 72-foot candle,” Geer said. “And we were going to build an 80-foot something. But the problem we ran into is that we probably would have to get it engineered. That was just a little much.”
For now, the tallest decoration in the display is about 45 feet, and it’s the Eiffel Tower, which is in the 12 Days of Christmas series.
But in the future, a foundation is being developed to shepherd the Festival of Lights now that it is so large. It also will be able to collect money for programs like Secret Santa as well.
“It’s very difficult for us to maintain what we have, much less grow it,” Geer said. “And they are excited about being able to grow this.”
That will likely lead to more marketing for the Festival of Lights to get the word out about what the community has created and turn it into a holiday destination.
“We haven’t really pushed it because it’s free and we have well over 15,000 vehicles by word of mouth,” Geer said. “But it’s been a fun project for the Parks Department.”