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East Peoria Festival of Lights draws thousands

Millions of tiny bulbs light up a city park every holiday season in this Illinois River town, attracting about 125,000 revelers from across the country.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Millions of tiny bulbs light up a city park every holiday season in this Illinois River town, attracting about 125,000 revelers from across the country.

The city's Festival of Lights kicked off Nov. 26 with a parade of 40 lighted floats that included a life-sized replica of Anheuser-Busch's Clydesdales fashioned from 90,000 light bulbs.

This year, laser light shows and an indoor winter carnival join the annual festival's main attraction - a two-mile winding path through a park awash in light displays that include the traditional flying reindeer and not-so-common displays of a life-sized fire truck, ski jumps, space ships and fireworks.

Last year, about 25,000 cars and nearly 200 buses drove along the park's lighted trail, said Steve Powell, executive director of the Peoria Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.

"It's like the Fourth of July. You hear lots of oohs and aahs," said East Peoria spokeswoman Jill Peterson. "It's so neat to see the smiles, especially the kids."

The festival in the city of about 22,000 people is listed among this year's top 100 events in North America by the American Bus Association, the trade group for the bus industry.

This season, the 21-year-old festival added a new, 60-foot inflatable dome at RiverFront Park where lasers project nightly light shows featuring animated Santas and other holiday fare, all set to Christmas carols. When lighted, the dome will be visible miles away, resembling a giant snow globe, Peterson said.

The festival, which runs through Dec. 31, also added an indoor winter carnival this year, with rides, shops, a maze of lighted trees and animated light displays at the nearby Village and Marketplace on East Washington Street.

Organizers have tracked visitors from Pennsylvania to South Dakota at East Peoria's festival, a $700,000 event funded through a local hotel-motel tax and sponsorships by companies such as Peoria-based Caterpillar Inc.

Some are lured through the bus association's top 100 list, which included East Peoria's festival for the third time this year.

"We like to compare it to the Good Housekeeping seal," said Lori Harrison, spokeswoman for the Washington-based organization.

The list, which does not rank the events, has helped draw bigger crowds to stops like East Peoria as holiday light shows gain popularity in a tour bus industry seeking to branch out from its traditional big-city and resort excursions, Harrison said.

For many, the festival has become a holiday tradition.

Christina Alcaraz, an East Peoria mother of four, said it kicks off her family's holiday celebration. Even after seven straight years, she said, the high-voltage show still leaves her kids wide-eyed.

"Sometimes it's pretty cold and snowy, so it has to be good to keep you coming back every year," said 35-year-old Alcaraz. "It gets you in the holiday spirit and it just gets bigger every year."

Hotel, restaurant and other business owners also look forward to the festival, which poured an estimated $6.9 million into the region's economy last year, Powell said.

But East Peoria's festival and about 80 other holiday light shows around the state pump up more than the economy, said Anne Wortham, a sociology professor at Illinois State University.

Wortham said they raise people's spirits and help them connect with each other.

"What the heck holds us together?" Wortham said. "It's stuff like the lights festival. We come together, we have a sense that everyone agrees this is good."

East Peoria officials say they'll leave a light on for anyone who wants to stop by.

"We don't see an end in sight," Peterson said. "It likely will keep going on for another generation of families."

If you go:

: (800) 365-3743. Located at Exit 96 of I-74 West. Through Dec. 31. At VFW Park, drive through two miles of lighted displays; $5 per car Monday-Thursday and $10 Friday-Sunday.

LASER LIGHT DISPLAY: At RiverFront Park through Dec. 18, laser light shows with holiday themes in an inflatable dome. Open 5 p.m.-10 p.m., with shows on the hour 6 p.m.-9 p.m.

INDOOR WINTER CARNIVAL: At the Village and Marketplace, 2200 E. Washington St. Shops, rides, maze of lighted trees and animated displays; admission is free with a charge for rides. Displays up through the end of the year but closed Dec. 24, 25 and 31.