MT. PLEASANT — While the Festival of Lights has only been in operation since 2013, the light display event has quickly become a family favorite and holiday tradition for many.
Each year, the drive-through arrangement of displays at the Midwest Old Threshers Campgrounds features over 120 decorations and fun, glowing sites. This year will see the return of a favorite called the Toy House, which utilizes over a thousand bulbs to bring a three-dimensional toy house to life. Preparations to set up the event start in late October each year.
Terry McWilliams, the chief executive officer of Old Threshers, said the nonprofit started the event after becoming aware of North Pole Productions at a fair convention. The company, which leases light displays, explained at a seminar that the two things needed were “road and electricity.”
“So my little mind started going and … I knew we had enough road at the campgrounds and the electricity to do it,” McWilliams said.
Old Threshers leases about half of its displays from North Pole Productions at a price tag of $50,000. But the money seems to be well spent. McWilliams noted that families often come from all over Iowa and sometimes even travel from neighboring states like Missouri and Illinois. In a license plate count from last year, McWilliams noted that over 30 counties across Iowa were represented during the festival.
“It’s become a family tradition for those who come and are visiting relatives. We have folks who enjoy it and come multiple times. It’s a lot of fun,” McWilliams said.
In addition to the light displays, the Festival of Lights will be hosting their second annual Fun Run on Sunday Nov. 24, during which families can walk through the display course and see the light fixtures up close. Residents can even bring their pets along to enjoy the walk that starts at 5:30 p.m.
Santa Claus also will be making an appearance at the campgrounds the last weekend of November and every weekend leading up to Christmas.
Bob Griffith, who has volunteered to help man the gates and switch on the light displays since the Festival of Lights began, said his favorite part of lending a helping hand to the event is seeing all the people.
“It’s really fun ... just seeing all the people having a good time. It’s just fun to be around people, especially around Christmastime because everybody’s in a good mood,” he chortled.
As someone who works behind the scenes, Griffith gets to watch the displays get turned on and off. One of his personal favorites is the Toy House.
“They’re all unique and different. It’s really fun to turn on the lights. There’s no master switch so there’s like 35 different switches that we run around to ... it’s just kind of nice to see them all on,” he said.
For Griffith, seeing other families see the light displays evokes a sense of nostalgia. The 64-year-old, who grew up in the Des Moines area, remembers going around to see Christmas lights with his own parents while growing up.
“You see the same people coming out over and over again. It’s a new tradition for them, which is really neat to see ... it’s always a new experience. Each and evening is a new experience,” Griffith added.
“It gives them something to enjoy and remember,” he continued.
For the Rawson family, the Festival of Lights is a yearly tradition that started as soon as the event was open. 9-year-old Elodie enjoys riding through the route with her family “because it’s fun and [she] gets to see all the colorful lights.”
Although Elodie doesn’t have a favorite light display, her “favorite part is driving around and seeing what they’ve put up,” she added.
Nash, 7, similarly echoed his older sister’s comments on how he enjoys seeing the lights and the fun of driving through the campgrounds with his family.
“One year, they did a dinosaur one,” Nash recalled, describing his favorite display.
“I really like reading about them, they’re interesting,” he continued, explaining why that display stood out to him.
The Rawsons drive through the Festival of Lights on Thanksgiving after an evening of festivities. The group like to settle into their car, turn on some holiday music and drive through the displays.
“We’re a family that doesn’t decorate before Thanksgiving, so the [Festival of Lights] kicks off the season for us,” Laura, Elodie and Nash’s mother, said.
“We just look forward to being together and getting to do something fun together,” she remarked on why the tradition is special to her family.
The Festival of Lights opens Thursday, Nov. 21. at 5:30 p.m. For more information about ticketing and hours, visit https://www.oldthreshers.com/.