Making Christmas In The Park Happen

CITP_crewPARKS + REC CREW - From left to right: Alan Mark, Mitchell Johnson, Pat Welsh, Roger Christopher, Joe Gwadra, Judson Kneuvean, Jake Guinty, Christian Stone, Phil Thomas, Clifford Aspey, John Larman, Mark Hite. Not pictured: Jeff Duncan, Scott Braden, Caleb Moran.

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TUESDAY, DECEMBER 4, 2018

It’s all about the kids.

Jackson County’s Christmas In The Park is celebrating its 32nd year and the team who puts it all together agree that what makes it all worthwhile are the reactions from children visiting the display.

“It’s a labor of love for all of the kids to enjoy. When you start seeing all of the kids coming through and you hear them holler, that’s what it is all about,” said Mark Hite who has been with the Parks + Rec Department for all 32 years.

Hearing the kids’ laughter and making the park a great environment for families is 19-year Parks veteran Philip Thomas’ favorite part of the event.

When it began in 1987 there were 23 displays, the first being a snowman throwing snowballs at a snowwoman. There are now 56 major displays with close to 500,000 lights. The older displays also included some deer and a bear. The two oldest displays still in use are of a kid crashing on a sled and BMX bike riders.

All of the displays are created and built by members of the Parks Dept. “Those ideas are kind of a collaboration between some of the staff who get together, Parks + Rec Director Michele Newman, John Johnson and me. We see different things and come up with different ideas to do. I put them together, put them on paper and try to get them into a form that we can put lights on,” Hite said.

The displays have gotten bigger and more technically advanced over the years, he said. “We used to use string lights like you put on your Christmas tree. We then transferred to an incandescent rope light and now we are doing an LED rope light on most of the displays. We also have more complex timers and things to make them operate more smoothly.”

The newest display is a tunnel with constantly changing light patterns it is operated by four small computers which sequence each light bulb individually and tells which bulbs to turn on or off and what color the bulbs will be. Hite said, “It is the newest in cutting edge Christmas lighting technology.” The sequencing software was designed by a lighting company in Kansas City.

John Johnson, Superintendent of Parks Operations said the conversion to LED lighting has been a two year process and will save the county a significant amount of money in electrical costs because they use 10 percent of the power that the incandescent lights did.

Besides being brighter and more cost efficient the LED rope lights are much easier to work with, John Larman said. “Back in the classic days when a light went out we had use a voltage tester on every bulb before we found the right one to turn the whole string on.”

He said that if it rained or if there was a heavy fog water would get into the old style lights and trip the breakers. Generators were necessary to power the lights in case of rain with one generator used for every three displays.

Setting up the displays begins October 1, the day after the Longview Campground closes for the year. Hite said it takes 12 to 18 people putting in a total of about 3,000 man hours.  

One of the most difficult parts of setting up the displays is dealing with bad weather and being able to move equipment in to the park that is tall enough to set up some of the bigger displays.  Larman said, “You get the displays put up and then the weather moves in and it becomes challenging to keep the displays on and operating.”

“What some people don’t think about is we also have to keep the roads clear.” Following a recent snow storm, crews with a tractor and bucket loader plowed and spread material to clear the road. “After the last snow that happened the road leading into Christmas In The Park and the road inside the park was the clearest road in the county. No snow and no ice,” Larman said.

Work doesn’t end after the displays are all set up for the season. Various sections of lights often need to be repaired or replaced. There is a crew that works nights to make sure that everything stays in working order.

After the event ends December 31, it will be time to take the displays down and pack them away for another year. A process that will take about a month, if the weather cooperates.

Through donations, Christmas In The Park has provided more than $1 million to local charities.