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Taking the chill out of the light festival

Central Illinois winters can be so frightful that one of the state's largest holiday light festivals is moving indoors, hoping turnout might be even more delightful this year.
The carousel display in the new Folepis RiverFront Promenade is seen during the Festival of Lights in East Peoria, Ill. The carousel is animated by synchronized blinking lights, and is attached to a pavilion in the park.
The carousel display in the new Folepis RiverFront Promenade is seen during the Festival of Lights in East Peoria, Ill. The carousel is animated by synchronized blinking lights, and is attached to a pavilion in the park. Jill Peterson / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Central Illinois winters can be so frightful that one of the state's largest holiday light festivals is moving indoors, hoping turnout might be even more delightful this year.

Organizers say bringing events in from the cold could boost attendance — already around 120,000 — by up to 25 percent at the annual East Peoria Festival of Lights, which runs through Dec. 31.

A nightly laser show is being offered indoors this year in a heated theater in this city of about 22,000 along the Illinois River. Last year, holiday revelers stood outside for about a half-hour watching images of dancing snowmen and Santas that were projected onto a 60-foot inflatable dome.

"It was really neat, like a giant animated Christmas ornament, and people liked it. But it was horrendously cold last December, unusually cold, and it was almost too cold to stand outside and watch it," said festival coordinator Jill Peterson.

Teresa Stimeling, 40, of East Peoria, says she'll likely take her 2-year-old son to one of the three nightly laser shows now that they're inside.

Others, though, say a little shivering is as much a part of the holidays as shopping and eggnog.

"It's not a bad idea, but there's nothing like Mother Nature," said Anthony Little, 50, of Peoria. "Just don't stay out too long."

The festival draws people from around the country.

The laser show is being held at the Festival Building, where the event's popular carnival rides were already located.

But the festival's biggest draw is a two-mile drive through VFW Park, which is lit up with animated exhibits ranging from a candy cane factory to a giant, simulated fireworks display.

** FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE **This November 2006 photo provided by the City of East Peoria, shows the Enterprise float in the Festival of Lights in East Peoria, Ill. This float is very popular with Star Trek fans and was redone with LED lights this year. The float is 57 feet long, 22 feet wide and 14 feet tall, and illuminated with 52,000 lights. (AP Photo/City of East Peoria, Jill Peterson)Jill Peterson / CITY OF EAST PEORIA

Some walk-through attractions remain, including displays at a riverfront park that feature a 35-foot Ferris wheel lighted to look like a Christmas wreath.

East Peoria's festival planners aren't the only ones thinking of visitors' comfort.

About 125,000 holiday visitors get a taste of both inside and out every year at Chicago's Lincoln Park Zoo, where a host of lighted displays shine both outdoors and in heated animal houses during ZooLights, another monthlong holiday event.

Brian Anderson, director of events at the zoo, said the mix of indoor and outdoor exhibits offers visitors easy refuge if Chicago's sometimes bitter December chill gets to be too much.

"We probably have an advantage over festivals like East Peoria's. If you get a little cold, you just go into one of the houses and get warm. You can stay out as long or as short a time as you want," Anderson said.

Peterson said luring people outside has become more challenging during the East Peoria festival's 22-year run.

"I think there's a lot more distractions in our homes to keep us inside. When the festival started, we didn't have Nintendo, we didn't have PCs, we didn't have all these TV channels," Peterson said.