Starry, Starry Night

Thanksgiving Point’s Luminaria Shines

Gail Newbold | Photos courtesy of Thanksgiving Point Nov 16, 2018

A bitter wind howls in the parking lot of Thanksgiving Points’ Ashton Gardens on this cold December night.

“I can’t believe I paid for this,” you mumble to yourself. Aloud you say cheerfully to the kids, “Here we are at Luminaria! This is going to be so much fun!” Under your breath: “If we don’t freeze first.”

Once through the ticket line and out the door, you gasp at the scene ahead. More than 6,000 colored luminaries set to music cover the sloping hillside, with moving pictures like poinsettias blooming and reindeer flying. The pathway winding through the garden is lined with brightly lit “beats” with themes such as the reindeer woods and peppermint place. Cold is forgotten. At some point you realize the wind is no longer howling in the partially sheltered gardens.

An Expensive Gamble

It took a lot of chutzpah from the powers that be at Thanksgiving Point four years ago when they made an initial investment of $1.1 million to illuminate 25 acres of lawn, trees and streams with colored lights. They hoped to draw people away from their cozy fireplaces and out into the winter night.

“We didn’t know if it would work,” says Josh Berndt, director of communications at Thanksgiving Point. “We knew there would be nights when the wind was blowing, snow was falling, and it would be rough. We put on the blindfolds and said, ‘OK, let’s go for it.’”

From all appearances, their gamble paid off. In the event’s second season, 86,000 awestruck guests wandered the mile-long loop of luminaries set to music, lighted trees, concession booths, fire pits, live reindeer, kids’ games and gingerbread houses. This year that number is expected to swell to 100,000. By the time visitors arrive on opening day Nov. 19, the professional crew who installs the more than 1 million LED lights will have been working since early fall.

“It’s a multisensory experience,” Berndt says. “There are smells in some of the beats like peppermint, and more smells from the food booths like the one selling hot mini doughnuts. You can see the lights, hear the music and taste the food.” 

Food, Games and Gingerbread Houses

First-time visitors wonder if the 1-mile path will hold their children’s attention, magical lights notwithstanding. Return guests know it will.

“My kids loved the game area,” says one visitor from New York City.

“Last year we had beanbag tosses, Lite Brite, Santa sleighs pinewood derby tracks and more,” Berndt says. “We like to take the kids’ minds off the cold.”

Other guests commented on the welcome fire pits and food booths as fun stopping points. The live reindeer are always a hit with kids and the “reindeer host” clearly enjoys dispensing fanciful information about the reindeers’ connection to Santa as well as facts about how the animals can see in the snow and communicate with each other by clicking their hooves.

A guest from Bountiful, Utah, says, “I liked how everyone seemed so happy.”

A good time to admire the mouthwatering gingerbread houses is at the conclusion of the chilly walk, as the display is inside a heated greenhouse.

Sculpture Garden a Place of Peace

Looking for a quiet moment of reflection? Wander the Light of the World Garden, new to the event last year. Glowing lanterns and peaceful music accompany this space featuring 35 monument-sized bronze sculptures depicting scenes of Jesus Christ from the New Testament.

Even kids are fascinated with the tableaus featuring stories familiar to some, but equally interested are children with no Biblical background. The garden is a great opportunity for parents and grandparents to share their love of New Testament stories in a natural, casual way.

Fields of golden grass serve as a backdrop to the inspiring statuary.

“The sculpture garden is technically not part of the Luminaria experience,” Berndt says, “but we wanted to enhance that area since it’s part of the garden. We used softer lighting; no Christmas lights. The rest of the event is more commercial, but the sculpture garden is a spiritual place, and a great way to learn about Christmas.”

Worth the Price

With an admission cost of $20 for adults and $15 for kids at peak days and times, Luminaria can be expensive if you have a large family. “But I promise it’s worth it,” Berndt says. “We don’t have a lot of disappointed people.”

To save money on treats, visitors are welcome to bring in their own food or a thermos of hot chocolate.

Will people want to return year after year? “I think so,” Berndt says. “It’s becoming a really neat winter tradition for families and the word is spreading. We do Christmas with a bang here in Utah, and people are clamoring for something unique and special.”

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