Three million lights and Puff the Magic Dragon
East Peoria Festival of Lights, one of the largest in the Midwest
East Peoria claims its Festival of Lights is “one of the largest, lighted nighttime festivals in the Midwest.” While such a boast is difficult to prove, visitors will encounter enough colorful, twinkling wattage to satisfy even the Grinchiest among them.
The festival, which runs nightly through Dec. 31, features a drive-through park filled with displays ranging from reindeer to dinosaurs. Included is a flotilla of floats from a Nov. 18 parade through the city, 70 miles northwest of Springfield.
“We have 30 to 40 floats that are homemade in Peoria,” says Doug McCarty, East Peoria’s tourism director, explaining that a retired Caterpillar engineer designed and built them years ago. After the annual parade those floats become part of Folepi’s Winter Wonderland and add to its unique character. “What makes our display different is the three-dimensional aspect. Most other displays have just two dimensions.”
McCarty also says new technology has given those original floats renewed life. “With technology, we can make Puff the Magic Dragon look like he is flying.”
The city adds an enchanted forest, a narrated nativity scene, a special stamp cancellation, a couple of runs and an ornament hunt to make the season even brighter. This year marks 33 years for the Parade of Lights and 26 for the Winter Wonderland.
Wonderland hours are 5 to 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 5 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday now through Dec. 31. McCarty suggests a weekday evening to avoid the sometimes two-hour wait on the weekends.
A carload is $10, and McCarty estimates 24,000 to 25,000 vehicles pass through the gates each year. Especially on the weekends, organizers notice a lot of out-of-state license plates. Busloads also show up, and the American Bus Association has named the festival one of the top 100 events in North America six times.
All those visitors can gaze on various themes, including a prehistoric area with Puff and a triceratops, a Western town with a 65,000-light bulb steam train, a space area with Star Wars’ fighters and a space shuttle, and the reindeer area with Rudolph. Other highlights are a patriotic display, overhead arches, sea creatures, Christmas toys, a castle, a Victorian mansion, ski jump and skiers, a circus and various vehicles. Tuning the car radio to 107.3 FM adds holiday music as you drive the two miles.
McCarty says a float featuring the outline of eight Budweiser Clydesdales pulling a wagon usually thrills most visitors. The float is 70 feet long and has 50,000 lights.
All lights are LED, which organizers say are brighter and more energy-efficient than the previously used mini-lights. The electric bill still can reach $5,000 for the 3 million lights used.
The mascot for the festival is Folepi, the toy soldier at the center of the logo and the acronym for the Festival of Lights East Peoria Illinois. He figures into a city-wide ornament hunt too. The city releases weekly clues for those looking to find Folepi, hidden in a round acrylic ornament outside on public property. The winner gets $1,000.
As part of a free enchanted forest, East Peoria has a 35-foot Christmas tree on display at 401 W. Washington St. and offers Santa visits there on Friday nights. The city’s post office will have a special stamp cancellation from 9 to 11 a.m. on Dec. 2. A local radio station, 87.9 FM, broadcasts a two-minute narration for a handmade nativity scene as part of the festival. To reach that scene, continue straight for several blocks after exiting the wonderland.
The festival ends with a New Year’s Eve fun run through the lighted wonderland at 11:30 p.m., after the area is closed to traffic.
Across the Illinois River in Peoria, those in the mood for more merriment can hop on the Spirit of Peoria riverboat for special cruises featuring holiday music and stories. Lunch cruises run Nov. 30, Dec. 1-2, 6-9 and 13-15. A dinner cruise leaves Dec. 1. Visit www.spiritofpeoria.com for details.
For more information about the Festival of Lights and other holiday attractions in the Peoria area, go to www.folepi.org or call 1-855-833-5327.
To get to the Winter Wonderland as you enter East Peoria on I-74, going west, take Exit 96. At the bottom of the ramp, turn left on East Washington Street. Follow it until the intersection with Springfield Road. Turn left on Springfield Road and go up a hill. The display begins at Springfield Road and Par 3 Lane. An alternate route, which may be better on weekends, is to take Exit 98 (Pinecrest Road). Take Pinecrest to Mueller Road and then turn right on Springfield Road. Proceed to the entrance at Par 3 Lane.
Mary Bohlen is a Springfield freelance editor and writer, specializing in travel writing. She loves a good Christmas light display.