It started almost 30 years ago with some Christmas trees and some cocktails.
Now the annual Celebration in the Oaks in City Park draws more than 165,000 visitors each year for food and libations among a constellation of a half-million dazzling LED lights strung across 25 acres, including the park’s Botanical Garden, Storyland and Carousel Gardens amusement park.
“It just kind of grew,” said Amanda Frentz, the park’s media manager. “And every year we add to the route, so it’s new and fresh and different, something people want to keep partaking in.”
During a tour of this year’s setup, which opens to the public Friday, Frentz and other park staff showed off the latest edition of the winter spectacle, which took eight months of preparation and involves 558,350 LED bulbs, 32,800 feet of rope lights and 8,000 feet of Zip Cord.
New features include a flickering “Prancing Peacocks” display, with blue, green and purple lights; two 15-foot-tall reindeer; and an aquatic-themed “Time for Turtles” light display.
There also are expanded items on the 2-mile miniature train ride, including a new fence for the French Quarter exhibit, complete with lanterns and a red bow made of Christmas lights. The display features a replica of St. Louis Cathedral, miniature shotgun houses, a carriage led by horses and a hot dog cart.
The “Rocking Around the Christmas Tree” exhibit has been spruced up, too, with a fully synchronized light and music display of red and green Christmas trees, shooting stars and an orange, red and white Santa face that “sings,” his mouth moving to the words of the songs.
“These new exhibits are an example of the creativity our team has with lights and engineering,” park spokesman John Hopper said.
Finally, the park has a new Ladybug roller coaster, marking the first time the ride has come back for Celebration in the Oaks since Hurricane Katrina, when the old roller coaster was damaged. It reaches 40 feet in the air, goes 25 mph, seats 20 people and has magnetic breaks, staff members said.
Other recent additions include Dinosaur Land, which features a Tyrannosaurus rex and a jumping Velociraptor, among other creatures. There’s also the “Buggin’ Out” exhibit in the shade garden, complete with red and green flowers, a green and pink snail, butterflies and a friendly snake wearing a Santa hat.
But while the team strives for innovation, it’s tradition that lures visitors back time and again, according to Nayson Seals, the mechanic who operates the miniature train.
Seals said that during a busy Celebration in the Oaks night, nearly 4,000 people will ride the train, and children and adults alike still seem taken with the old favorites, like the Who Dat tree, and the “Cajun Night Before Christmas” display, featuring Santa and his alligators.
“It’s the nostalgia of Christmas,” Seals said, adding that his staff starts preparing for the event about two months in advance.
This year, they’ve added a fourth train and improved the queue, so the lines waiting for the train will move faster.
Another mainstay is Mister Bingle, the holiday statue consisting of a snowman’s body, an ice cream cone hat, red mittens and holly wings, is back and ever his cheery self. The fiberglass snowman was built in Chicago and brought in 1948 to New Orleans, where he lived on Canal Street at the Maison Blanche department store.
He stayed there for 50 years, until the store closed, eventually becoming a Ritz-Carlton Hotel. At that point Mr. Bingle took up residence at Lakeside Shopping Center. It wasn’t until 2005, after Hurricane Katrina, that Mister Bingle made his way to City Park, as a gift.
Another holiday favorite is the 16-foot poinsettia tree in the park’s Conservatory, made from about 500 plants that were ordered in July, just to make sure they were tall enough and red enough, staff said.
And of course the Dripping Snow Tree, an exhibit with 42,000 LED bulbs, is back again this year. Along with the white Christmas lights winding around every branch of the ancient oak, the exhibit features “dripping lights,” fashioned to look like glistening icicles or drops of rain falling against the light of a streetlamp.
“Lots and lots of people propose here,” Frentz said.
Admission to Celebration in the Oaks is $8. Train ride tickets are $5, and single-ride amusement park tickets are $4. For $18, guests get a band for unlimited rides.
With the exception of a few days, the exhibit is open until Jan. 2. The lights are on Sundays through Thursdays from 6 to 10 p.m. and Fridays and Saturdays until 11 p.m.
The display will be closed Nov. 30, Dec. 3, Dec. 24 and Dec. 31.