By LINDA CHION KENNEY
Tampa Bay’s Festival of Lights and Santa’s Village is set to open the day after Thanksgiving and run through New Year’s Eve at the Hillsborough County Fairgrounds in Dover. This popular holiday light show and festival is billed as a “hometown holiday tradition,” featuring “more than one million lights along an expanded two-mile drive.” The aim is to bring the community together and to support further youth activities and fair and facility upgrades.
“The Festival of Lights, that’s a core memory for me for Christmas time,” said Olivia Knight, a Lennard High student. “I went for the first time in fifth grade. I went with my dad, and it was so much fun. We did all types of activities, and we drank so much hot chocolate.”
The event has grown since then in its expanded form. Major draws this year include more contemporary light show favorites, including the Pirates of Tampa guarding entry to the 11-foot, dive-through animated tunnel; alligators and airboats in a Florida-themed setting; and lively animals frolicking together.
New to the mix this year are other attractions, including a dip into a new “Under the Sea” representation, with blue-light sparkles and playful aquatic creatures. Planned displays include as well Santa driving an airboat; colorful Florida reef with coral, fish and sea creatures; Candy Cane Lane; North Pole Ski Shop; Frosty’s Ice Cream Truck and Rudolph’s Bakery.
Festival features this year include for the first time a “phantom carnival,” Holcomb said, including rides with seasonal themes, including Santa’s train, the reindeer carousel and a holiday roller coaster and Ferris wheel.
As for Santa’s Village, expect holiday treats and delicacies, family-friendly games and activities, face-painting, photo opportunities and holiday-themed rides. New this year in Santa’s Village is an 80-foot walk toward a 30-foot lit Christmas tree in the village center. The winter market is set to open nightly, while the Hometown Hillsborough Historical Village, with a holiday twist, is set to feature firepits for toasting S’mores.
Santa will be at the fairgrounds, along with craft stations at Santa’s Warehouse. Take camel rides at Santa’s Barnyard Petting Zoo. Other activities include holiday movies and shorts and live entertainment on weekends. According to fair officials, don’t be surprised to find the Grinch or Jack Frost on the premises as well.
“We’ve provided this event for seven or eight years now, and this is the third year we produced the production ourselves,” Holcomb said. “It’s a lot of work to turn around in 11 days [following the Hillsborough County Fair], but everyone’s in the holiday spirit and it’s really nice to see it come together.”
Recognizing there’s no shortage of holiday affairs throughout the county, Holcomb said the festival is one more effort to draw the community together.
“Given that a lot of people don’t put up lights anymore, and that our event is five weeks long, it gives the community an opportunity to come out and look at Christmas lights,” Holcomb said. “We encourage friends, neighbors and families to come together to see the lights for themselves.”
In additional to the expected seasonal and Christmas themes, there are light displays that reflect some of the major draws of Florida living and tourism, including manatees, golfing, beaches and palm trees.
Live entertainment Friday and Saturday nights is on tap as well, including Dennis Lee and his band, set to return Dec. 16 and 17, and Katie Lombardo, on tap for Dec. 9 and 10. Other live entertainment is scheduled as well, with a full rundown of event details and offerings available online at www.HillsboroughCountyFair.com/.
Despite inflationary pressures, the price for entry to the festival of lights and Santa’s Village remains the same as last year. Season passes reportedly will be available as well, for the first time ever.
Tickets cost $25 per carload (up to eight people) and $80 per busload (up to 30 people) to view the Festival of Lights and visit Santa’s Village, Thursday through Sunday and $20 per carload Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday for drive through only. Gates open at 6 p.m. weekdays and weekends, with gates closing at 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
According to Holcomb, additional costs inside Santa’s Village include those for face painting ($10); camel rides ($15); tractor-pull hayrides ($3); individual tickets per carnival ride (under $5); and crafts stations, including $1 each to make reindeer candy canes and for making “reindeer food.”
As for capturing the moment for prosperity, photos with Santa are priced at $5 and $10, for digital and printed, respectively, Holcomb said. Backdrops for selfies are scattered throughout the village, including one that features a candy cane theme.
Santa’s Village is open Nov. 23-26, Nov. 30 through Dec. 3, Dec. 7-10, Dec. 24-25. All other dates are drive-through only, and the cost is $20 on those nights only. Heroes Night is Dec. 7 (6 to 9 p.m.) and Paws and Claws Night is Dec. 14 (6 to 9 p.m.).
Visit www.HillsboroughCountyFair.com for updates and more information. The Hillsborough County Fairgrounds in Dover is at 215 Syndey Washer Road. Call 813-737-3247.