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East Peoria kicks off 37th annual Festival of Lights after first place win on 'The Great Christmas Light Fight'

FOL East Peoria
City of East Peoria
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Lighted Horse Display at the Festival of Lights in East Peoria

As the holidays roll in, so do the festivities associated with them. East Peoria’s 37th annual Festival of Lights is back and better than ever, coming off a first place championship win on ABC’s prime time TV show “The Great Christmas Light Fight” in 2020.

Doug McCarty, director of tourism and special events for the City of East Peoria, said YouTube videos of the East Peoria Festival of Lights (FOL) display caught the eye of the director of the TV show. The program originally featured homeowners and the elaborate light displays outside their homes, but was looking to have a season exclusively on what ABC calls the “heavyweights," which featured community parks and much larger light displays like the one in East Peoria.

“We filmed it three nights in November of 2019...and then had to sit on it for a year and then it aired in December of 2020. Since then we’ve been using that momentum a little bit to market,” said McCarty.

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Jody Holtz
Doug McCarty is director of tourism and special events of East Peoria.

After taking home the championship, McCarty recalls many emails and phone calls from people all over the United States who wanted to come see the light display in person. That was beneficial not only for the FOL, but for the city of East Peoria as well.

“We’re trying to get our hotels involved, our restaurants ... other things people can do while they’re here. We don’t want them just to come to the Winter Wonderland or parade and then go back home. We want them to stay, see what the Peoria area has to offer ... and keep them in the area,” said McCarty.

The FOL is not just a single event or parade. It offers several options of entertainment, with the parade being the first.

“The parade is the traditional kickoff to the Festival of Lights...that goes down the road that Saturday before Thanksgiving, then everythings taken up to the park ... that opens up Thanksgiving night and runs through New Years Day,” explains McCarty.

The VFW Post 2078 Park in East Peoria hosts the drive-thru Winter Wonderland, where the floats from the parade and additional light displays can be viewed for $10 per vehicle. Those funds cover operational costs of the festival in its entirety, and leftovers are cycled through to cover the next year’s festival costs.

More than floats and lights

However, McCarty reminds people that floats and lights are not all the festival has to offer.

“The festival lights is a lot of little things that sometimes we don't necessarily focus on as much because the parade and the wonderland kind of overshadow that stuff. But it really is about six weeks worth of different events.”

Those other events include carriage rides through the Winter Wonderland, the River Trail Classic race, an ornament hunt, Folepi’s gifts and galore shop and stroll, A New Year’s Eve Celebration, and many others.

As far as attendance goes, McCarty says they had a great turnout last year, especially due to the amount of people practicing social distancing amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Our Winter Wonderland, previous to last year, we’d average 25,000 vehicles or so. Last year was more than 30,000. We expect a good year, especially coming off the TV show,” said McCarty.

The FOL has been happening in East Peoria since 1984, and the traditions and operations of the fest have been passed down from generation to generation. There’s been some question about what the future of the festival looks like, and if there’s enough community support and volunteers to keep it going.

“There was a time, probably 10 years ago or so, there was talk about, Is it time that we just kind of let this thing go? We had to make some changes. The TV show, I think, took it to another level, and I think that kind of gave us at least three to five more years of popularity... We really want to try to make sure we add something every year, change it up a little bit, do something to kind of keep the interest ... We got a good core group of people and the city's supportive of it. We're in a pretty good spot so I don't see anything in the near future happening,” McCarty said.

While the FOL keeps and builds on many of the original floats and displays that were hand built decades ago, this year a new float will be unveiled as well.

The FOL kicks off with the Parade of Lights on Nov. 20. Learn more about the parade route, the Winter Wonderland, and other festivities.

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