More than 2,000 Northwest Arkansans watched Mayor Lioneld Jordan light up the Fayetteville Downtown Square with nearly 500,000 Christmas lights Nov. 19 after a virtual Lights of the Ozarks kickoff event last year.
The annual Lighting Night Parade also returned following last year’s cancellation, featuring floats designed by local organizations.
Chloe Bell, director of community engagement for Experience Fayetteville, said community members can expect a Lights of the Ozarks festival closer to what they came to know pre-COVID-19 pandemic,but safety precautions are still in place. Officials are encouraging visitors to the lights display to use hand sanitizer and wear masks, and they removed high-touch components of the festivities, including lap-sitting during children’s visits with Santa.
The Lights of the Ozarks is a Fayetteville tradition that began in 1993, and while it has changed and grown over the years, it remains a hometown favorite for many, Bell said.
“I think tradition is the big word,” Bell said. “It is just that time to come together as a community and enjoy the season.”
Stella Hufhines, a freshman from Fayetteville, comes to the Lighting Night event every year and noticed attendance this year seemed high despite the ongoing pandemic, she said.
Hufhines remembers having to arrive for the parade hours in advance to be able to see it, she said. This year she did not have to struggle to find a good spot but thought the festival was packed compared to recent years.
“There were a lot of people there this year,” Hufhines said. “When I was a kid it used to be so crowded, so it’s nice to see people out again.”
The lights display is on every day from 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. through Jan. 1. Throughout the holiday season, Lights of the Ozarks features photo opportunities with Santa, holiday activities, musical entertainment and a refreshment area with hot chocolate available from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. Vendors also set up around the square to peddle food, drinks and gifts over the course of the festival's six-week run.
A substantial amount of work goes into setting up Experience Fayetteville’s largest event, Bell said.
“There’s a lot of permitting, road closures, diagramming and logistics meetings,” Bell said. “On top of it all, we have to be Santa and respond to the letters left in his mailbox by the kids.”
Lauren Dillon, a freshman from Little Rock, visited Lights of the Ozarks for the first time this year. She did not get to attend many events like it in her hometown, she said.
“It’s super cool seeing everyone in one place, and it’s really festive already,” Dillon said. “I’m already in the Christmas mood, so this is very fun for me.”
Dillon thinks there is a stronger sense of community in Fayetteville than in Little Rock, she said.
“People are definitely more friendly,” Dillon said. “Being able to go everywhere and it has kind of the homey vibe, as opposed to walking around and wondering where you are. It feels familiar even if you haven’t been there.”
Because Lights of the Ozarks is a long-standing tradition for the Fayetteville community, multiple generations of locals have warm memories tied to the winter festival, including Leah Center’s family.
“My dad actually proposed to my mom here,” Center, a junior, said. “So it’s a very sentimental place for my family.”
Center thinks the pandemic made many people feel uncomfortable about coming out to see the lights in 2020, and she is glad the festival is back to what she remembers from years past, she said.
“It’s a really cool way to support Fayetteville and support local people,” Center said.