When I was in grade school, my dad started a Christmas Eve tradition of driving my brother and me around to look at homes decorated in holiday lights. Sometimes my grandparents came along, but my mom never joined us. It was during those rides that Santa dropped our gifts under the tree (we always opened on Christmas Eve, then traveled to my grandparents’ resort on Christmas morning). Oddly enough, my mom never saw Santa—she would tell us she was either distracted in the kitchen or reading or watching TV. We never had a clue.
Seeing the lights became a treasured tradition, even more so when one particular neighborhood did a “12 Days of Christmas” theme, with nearly every home on the cul-de-sac participating. I can remember driving slowly past the homes, oohing and ahhing and admiring the clever/funny/touching displays. I thought the happy glow of all those lights was absolutely magical.
I still think holiday lights are magical—whether strung from a tree, on a house, or displayed in a front yard—which could be why I’m so intrigued by the Bentleyville Tour of Lights in Duluth’s Bayfront Festival Park. Every November, the park is transformed into one of the largest lighting displays in the Midwest. People travel great distances to experience Bentleyville, and Twin Cities residents can be to Duluth in about 2.5 hours. Flip the radio station to Christmas music and let the anticipation build.
In addition to lights, lights, and more lights (close to 3 million over seven acres), there’s a 12-story animated Christmas tree, holiday music piped through loudspeakers, free cookies, free cocoa, free popcorn, free marshmallows to roast at the firepits, a warming house, and appearances by Santa and Mrs. Claus. Kids can visit with Santa every night from 5-8 p.m. through December 23. Make the experience even more memorable by taking the North Shore Scenic Railroad train from Fitger’s Brewery Complex.
Who knows? Maybe traveling to Bentleyville every December will become your family’s own beloved holiday light tradition.
Admission is free, but nonperishable shelf donations are strongly encouraged. Hours are Sunday though Thursday, 5 to 9 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5 to 10 p.m. *Due to the park’s close proximity to Lake Superior—the wind can be extremely dangerous. Dress accordingly and check the website for closings due to inclement weather. The Tour of Lights is wheelchair-accessible, with paved walkways, and open from now through December 27 (and also open Christmas Eve and Christmas Day).
Bayfront Festival Park, Duluth Waterfront, 700 Railroad St., Duluth, MN 55802. (Parking is available directly in front of Bayfront Festival Park, Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center (DECC) and Great Lakes Aquarium for $5.) bentleyvilleusa.org