Christmas in the Park turns 35—here’s how it came to be

A light tunnel at Christmas in the Park/Courtesy photo

Pile in the family truckster, flip off the headlights and crank the Mannheim Steamroller Christmas album for a spectacular holiday light display experienced from the warmth of your car. Christmas in the Park lights up again this year to celebrate its thirty-fifth anniversary and continues to be one of the most beloved light display traditions in the city.

The paved road of the Longview Lake Campground in southeast Kansas City welcomes visitors down a path of captivating animated light displays including enthusiastic elves, a jolly Santa Clause, his radiant reindeer, and much more. This iconic local drive-through light display greets about one hundred thousand cars and three hundred thousand guests in one season. Those who go through Christmas in the Park will then end their magical holiday experience with the opportunity to donate to local charities as volunteers graciously extend out invitations to give.

Lights at Christmas in the Park/Courtesy photo

“Christmas in the Park has become synonymous with benefiting the less fortunate. While there is no charge for the drive-through event, donations are accepted and of course proceeds this year will be divided between thirty-nine local charities,” says Michele Newman, director of Jackson County Parks and Recreation, who puts on the event. “Thanks to the generosity of the community, we have been able to donate more than one million dollars to over one thousand charitable organizations right here at home.”

The concept of Christmas in the Park began back in 1987—a time when gas prices averaged ninety cents a gallon. The staff of county parks department was challenged by a county executive to design and build a unique winter wonderland for the community. With only three months to succeed in their holiday pursuit, the response it received when it finally opened exceeded all expectations.

“We were both amazed and delighted at the response with how much folks enjoyed it—they came through more than once,” says Newman. “Christmas in the Park opened with a line of cars stretching as far as the eye could see.” In 1987, the park started with approximately thirty total displays and one hundred thousand lights—thirty-five years later, the gates have once again opened on Thanksgiving Eve with about two-hundred light displays and over a million twinkling lights—with new displays added each year.

A light tunnel at Christmas in the Park/Courtesy photo

As for the planning for the next year’s Christmas in the Park, that begins only a couple of months after the closing of the gates of the previous year. They begin preparing in February with the construction of the displays in September and the setup at Longview Lake Campground starting in October. 

“No matter the weather—whether it is raining or snowing—the Jackson County maintenance and operation staff are out there because our goal is that the last car that goes through the Christmas in the Park on New Year’s Eve will have the same magical experience as the first car that went through Thanksgiving eve,” Newman says.

Each year the gates of Christmas in the Park are opened with a kick-off event called Christmas in the Sky, located on Longview Lake beach on the eve of Thanksgiving. It includes a holiday stage show, an annual star-studded line-up, fireworks on the beach, and the arrival of Santa by sleigh. As with Christmas in the Park, Christmas in the Sky is no charge to the public and all are welcome to attend.

Christmas in the Park will be lit up from Thanksgiving eve to New Year’s Eve, Sunday through Thursday from 5:30-10:30 pm, then Friday and Saturday from 5:30-11 pm.  Pile in the family truckster and drive on over to this cherished tradition that continues to light up the smiles of children and adults alike with each passing holiday season. “It is Jackson County’s gift to the community,” says Newman.

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