MANKATO — Mary Mertz and her 6-year-old grandson, Nicholas Mahowald, had just visited Santa at an event downtown and were on a quest to find Mankato’s tallest Christmas tree.
They didn’t find the tree, but what they did happen upon was a preview of what will likely be a huge holiday draw for Mankato this year. For the first time organizers of the Kiwanis Holiday Lights event flipped the switch Friday night on thousands of holiday lights that now decorate Sibley Park.
They were providing a treat to people attending the Mankato Area Foundation’s annual meeting at nearby Pathstone Living. The organization and its donors toured the park in buses after the dinner. The Foundation donated $50,000 to provide seed money for the project, which has raised more than $126,000 so far.
The green, red, blue, orange and white lights that glowed from the branches of dozens of trees in the park were actually only a fraction of the one million lights that cover the park. About three tons of extension cords that were just delivered still had to be connected to the rest of the lights.
It was still more than enough to get Mahowald into the holiday spirit.
“I didn’t bet all these lights would be here,” he said as he was getting back into his grandma’s van to continue their search for the tree. “It’s pretty cool.”
Mertz, who lives in Le Sueur but was in town to watch Nicholas while his parents went to a movie, said she’s planning to return for the real show.
The official lighting will be at about 6 p.m. Friday after a 5 p.m. lighted parade through the park. The show will continue through New Year’s Eve, with the lights lit from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 5 p.m. through 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Refreshments will be sold in the park’s zoo area and Santa will be visiting with children on the weekends.
Visitors will be able to walk or drive through the lights after entering the park via Sibley Parkway. Some of the lights are programmed to blink along with music that will be played over a topnotch sound system and over a low frequency radio feed that drivers can tune in.
Large lighted holiday displays will be another highlight. If they would have been purchased ready to light, they would have cost about $15,000 each, said Shannon Gullickson of Greater Mankato Growth. Instead, volunteers welded their own displays and strapped on colorful lights at a fraction of the cost.
“This is something we really want to expand,” Gullickson said. “We want to add more displays every year.”
It will be free to see the light show, but volunteers will be collecting cash donations as well as food donations for food shelves in the region. Cash that is donated will be used to expand the show for next year and to donate to other area organizations.
There’s another highlight for those who want a flashback to the days when North Mankato residents did a similar, but much smaller, show along Mary’s Circle. Some of the most popular displays from those light shows, including movie and book character themes, have been donated to the Kiwanis event.