Thousands see wonder of it all as annual winter light display returns to Falls Park

KELOLAND.com Original
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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — The annual winter light display at Falls Park is a long way from when Teri Schmidt scratched out a plan on yellow, legal-sized notebook paper back when Dave Munson was mayor of Sioux Falls.

Schmidt believed Sioux Falls should have a winter light display. And Munson agreed.

“He loved it and he brought in the parks department,” Schmidt said.

Schmidt is the executive director of Experience Sioux Falls. Munson served as mayor from 2002 to 2010.

The first Winter Wonderland was in 2003. It featured a countdown with Munson.

Winter Wonderland opens at 5 p.m. Friday and continues through Jan. 8, 2022. The lights turn off at midnight each day.

The idea for what is now the Winter Wonderland at Falls Park was supported, Schmidt said, “Because it (would draw) people to Sioux Falls.” The city would benefit from visitors who came to see it. Local residents would benefit from being able to view the display.

The display and the interest have grown together.

Since 2010-2011, Falls Parks has drawn 167,342 visitors in December and 90,226 in November, according to Experience Sioux Falls. Schmidt said many of those visitors come for the Winter Wonderland. The actual visitor count is likely three times higher because only visitors who sign the guestbook are counted, Schmidt said.

The former Visitors and Convention Bureau worked with the Parks and Recreation department on the display up until a few years ago, Schmidt said.

“We turned it over to the parks department; it’s not our role to do events,” Schmidt said. “What we do is promote the heck out of it.”

The parks and recreation department will use at least 25 miles of light strings for this year’s Winter Wonderland. It’s roughly 20 or 24 miles from the city to Dell Rapids, depending on the route.

The strings are as long as the distance between Sioux Falls and Dell Rapids, plus a little more.

The display includes about 355,900 lights. Lights are on 250 trees, 200 light poles and 25 wreaths, said Kelby Mieras, the parks and recreation operations manager.

The department has a $20,000 budget for replacement of lights, Mieras said.

“Over the years, we’ve used about a half dozen of different vendors for commercial grade lights,” Mieras said.

Commercial-grade lights come in strands with 100 or 250 or more lights, similar to what a person can buy for residential use. However, the city uses all LED lights and the commercial light strands are of heavier wiring gauge. “They are a little more beefier strand of lights,” Mieras said.

The city buys new lights by the number of light bulbs but also by the length of a strand. “We’ve bought a 75 foot strand, instead of buying bulbs,” he said as an example.

Display planning starts in February and installation starts in early October.

“You know, it’s really fun,” Mieras said. “The people that put it together take a lot of pride in it.”

As to whether or not park employees check out the holiday light displays in other cities for ideas, “We already know ours is better,” Mieras said with a laugh.

“We try to keep it fresh,” Mieras said. “There are a lot of the elements but we put (some) in different (areas).”

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The 2021 display will have some new additions.

“We have some new animated items. Those are pretty fun,” Mieras said. Mieras didn’t want to share the details of the new additions as he preferred to have viewers see for themselves.

Mieras and Schmidt said viewers should take in the display from a vehicle and by foot.

The drive allows the viewer to see the scope of the displays and park, Schmidt said.

Mieras also suggested the visitors go to the top of the tower at the visitor’s center. “The bird’s eye view from the tower at the visitor’s center is a great way to view it,” he said.

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