A few years ago, Bob Johnson, general manager of the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, visited the Christmas festival in Natchitoches and marveled at the glimmering lights.
He thought back to the 1960s and ’70s when New Orleans had similar events that brought families downtown and, on his way home, made up his mind to bring that kind of festivity back to the Crescent City.
In its debut at the convention center, 900 Convention Center Blvd., Johnson’s brainchild was called Christmas in the District. It offered a few concerts and a holiday light display outside the Convention Center. But from Dec. 18-27, in its third year, the rebranded NOLA ChristmasFest ups the ante, inhabiting Hall B of the convention center in full holiday regalia and offering familiar Christmas characters, a 25-foot Frasier fir, millions of lights, inflatables and rides for children, arts and crafts, a maze and even an indoor ice-skating rink.
“I like to say last year it was a come and see event, this year it’s a come and do event,” Johnson said. “This year, we’ve added the main attraction, which is an ice-skating rink. It’s real ice. There will be skates available for everybody to use.”
The ChristmasFest will kick off with a children’s lantern parade at the corner of Fulton and Lafayette streets at 5 p.m. Dec. 17. All children are welcome to join the parade from the streets to the convention center and preview the offerings within (register online first at nolachristmasfest.com).
For the rest of the fest, single day admission tickets are $5, while all access tickets are $20 and season tickets are $75. Tickets, discounts and parking information can be found on the website.
The convention center hopes to draw children and parents on school break for winter, opening daily from Dec. 18-27 from noon to 8 p.m. Hours on Christmas Eve are from noon to 5 p.m.; Christmas Day, the fun runs from 2 p.m. to 8 p.m.
“There will be some attractions, some rides and some inflatables and just a lot of stuff for kids and adults to do over the holidays while they’re out of school and at home and find themselves with some time on their hands,” Johnson said. “We, hopefully, have provided them an opportunity to come and be active and have a good time.”
Diane Lyons, president of Accent-DMC, who along with her company is helping coordinate NOLA ChristmasFest, said the fest is another addition to holiday events that might entice tourists to stay an extra day or two or give local families something to do on a “staycation.”
“It will be a huge economic development opportunity for the downtown district in the years to come,” Lyons said. “It expands the footprint that has been the French Quarter, and it expands it upriver.”
Johnson and his team believe ChristmasFest could become part of New Orleans’ extended holiday Zeitgeist.
“We just hope folks will embrace it and turn up,” Johnson said. “And next year, we hope to be bigger and better and that it’ll grow each year until it’s a staple in the region and a regional tourist attraction.”
“Everybody has their Christmas traditions,” Lyons said, “and I think this is going to be one of those great traditions in the future. So for me, it’s really exciting to be part of something that will be a legacy in the years to come.”