With well over a million tiny lights draped through oak trees and arranged into dazzling displays, contrived from the imagination, Celebration in the Oaks illuminates 25 acres of City Park throughout the holiday season.
The collection of awe-inspiring exhibits honors beloved New Orleans traditions and icons, recognizes numerous cultures and religions and showcases creativity at its finest.
“Every major piece starts with a grain of an idea,” said Julie LaCour, director of Celebration in the Oaks. Several months prior to the annual holiday event, a small in-house creative team consults a “book of ideas” that contains sketches for possible exhibits.
“We look at the book collectively as a team and narrow the ideas down,” she said. “Then we draw them out and make a template.”
The group of about seven people will then weld the display forms together and secure delicate lights. The structure “takes on a life of its own, at that point,” LaCour said.
In mid-November, nearly 100 lush Christmas trees are delivered from Tifton, Georgia. Volunteers assist with installing the trees in Storyland and attaching the lights, which include up to 400 strands. Many of the trees are then decorated by local schoolchildren.
“It couldn’t be done without the volunteers, quite frankly, because we are a small staff,” LaCour said. “It takes about eight months to put on the exhibit. It’s not just a two- or three-week job.”
Although Celebration in the Oaks features the classic attractions recognized by many and revamps older ones, LaCour noted that a number of new displays are added each year.
“Picking a favorite exhibit is like picking a favorite child,” LaCour said joking. The ornate Sea-Labration exhibit, which LaCour described as “a work of art,” has been expanded and will now feature a massive, papier-mâché Gulf oyster, amongst the other sea creatures. The mechanized oyster will open and close to reveal the luminous pearl, tucked inside its shell.
When the mini-train weaves through City Park, folks will spot the familiar form of Benjamin Franklin flying his kite, Mr. Bingle soaring through the air on a magic carpet and the green Loch Ness Monster floating across the lagoon, not far from the grandiose Pirate Ship.
But this year, Seymour the Pelican also will grace the lagoon. Decorative bubble lights, which resemble little lava lamps, will dangle from the oaks. And guests will notice that the imposing T-Rex is now accompanied by a slew of colorful dinosaurs.
“We had to do a little research on dinosaurs this year,” said LaCour, with a laugh. “You never know where this job is going to take you.”
The largest novelty, Rockin’ around the Christmas Tree, features a jovial Santa Claus, singing holiday tunes, a swirling Christmas tree and flashing lights. One of the smaller, but eye-catching, exhibits, Aliens Visit Planet Celebration, was made from repurposed light fixtures.
“I call the people on my team ‘MacGyvers’ because they can make something out of anything,” said LaCour, who explained that her crew is aiming to become greener. Ninety-five percent of the lights used are long-lasting LED lights. “We’re big on repurposing.”
LaCour and her team have transformed old, gaudy, glittery ornaments into elegant chandeliers. And Chinese lanterns have become incandescent Jingle Jelly Fish.
Just a few steps farther, families can huddle in front of the Cajun Night Before Christmas panorama — a perennial favorite — or listen to a school choir sing Christmas carols. The event also includes 16 amusement park rides, hot chocolate, and snacks and a gift village.
“We want everyone to leave with a smile on their face,” LaCour said. “That’s really the ultimate goal.”