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Rotary Lights will see some changes, new features this year

Rotary Lights will see some changes, new features this year

2019 Rotary Lights display in Riverside Park

Though many events and festivals have been cancelled this year because of the pandemic, the 2020 Rotary Lights will go on. But there will be some changes and as well as some new updates for the light show.

“We think we need Rotary Lights this year more than ever. We need some happy times, some good times, some things for people to do, for families to enjoy together,” said president Pat Stephens.

The group worked closely with health officials to ensure the event could go on while the community continues to wage against the virus, and because a majority — around 70%, organizers said — of its visitors participate by car, and the event is still outdoors, it’s one of the few events to survive the year.

Stephens, Pat


Rotary Lights brings up to 200,000 people to La Crosse each holiday season, and heading into its 26th year after juggling a lot of maintenance and construction to its base in Riverside Park, organizers thought it would be “their year.”

That’s proved a bit more challenging, but organizers are making necessary changes and updates to keep guests and staff safe while visiting, including enforcing mask wearing for all of its volunteers.

Still, after a tough year for communities everywhere, officials said that being able to hold the event in any capacity was especially important.

An event built around charity, this year the Rotary Lights group is partnering with 109 non-profits and 3,250 volunteers, and as is tradition, will collect non-perishable food donations from visitors.

But even more than that, in a time when the tourism industry and the economy continue to struggle, the event will be a refreshing boost for the community, typically bringing in $3 million in tourism dollars each year.

“In these times when we are struggling to cope with COVID-19, I am sure we are all extremely happy to have Rotary Lights here as a safe and friendly event that can be held to bring those dollars to the area,” said A.J. Frels with Explore La Crosse.

“Like everybody, we’re trying to make the best of a bad situation, with the virus,” Stephens said.

Changes and updates

This year, traffic through the light show will flow a bit differently to account for construction on Front Street.

Traffic will now travel down Second Street to Vine Street. The left half of Vine Street will be for Rotary Lights traffic only, and the right side will be divided for regular traffic use.

Barriers will be in place to separate and guide traffic.

The Ugly Sweater Fun Run 5K will still happen with some tweaks. Instead of an organized group run, those who register can run wherever they like, though the traditional trail from Myrick to Riverside Park will still be lit up the first weekend of December.

A.J. Frels


Registration fees are lowered because of the changes, and the sweater competition and awards will be done virtually.

There will be no parade or formal opening ceremony this year, though Santa will be in the first car on opening day and flip the switch to kick the event off, and there will still be a fireworks display.

Kids also will no longer be able to sit on Santa’s lap or have breakfast with him, but he will be in the park, waving and cheering at visitors from Santa’s house.

The ice rink will be open, weather-permitting, but there will be no warming house or skate rentals — skaters should bring their own.

Inside the ice castle will be movies rather than the traditional live entertainment. Live entertainment will still happen at the newly-constructed band shell or throughout the park on select nights, though.

The live nativity scene, which usually includes up to 100 actors, will now only feature the holy family this year.

There will also be no sponsor reception or gift shop.

There will still be reindeer in the park and a s’mores pit, and the restrooms on the north end of the park are now open year-round and are ADA accessible.

New features

A new Santa sleigh will be a big new feature for this year’s event. The 13-foot-long sleigh was handcrafted by Rotary Lights volunteer Gary Brauer, who other group members adoringly said coincidentally looks like Santa himself.

Santa's workshop

Rotary Lights volunteer, Gary Brauer, sands a sleigh Monday that’s currently under construction at the holiday display’s headquarters downtown. After construction, the 13 foot-long sleigh will be sent to FAST Fiberglass in Sparta for a colorful coating. Finally it will be decorated with lights by volunteers for its inaugural use in the coming holiday season. Brauer himself will be one of about a dozen Santas to volunteers at this year’s display.

The slay, painted a traditional red, is “built like a brick” and is sure to be a new icon of the event, officials said. Visitors will be able to take photos on the sleigh.

New Rotary Lights Santa sleigh

This year's Rotary Lights display will feature a new Santa sleigh, which was handcrafted by a local volunteer.

This year’s annual Santa button, which features a new local face on it every year, will pay remembrance to a longtime volunteer of the light show.

On the button this year is Sharon Earp, from SSE Music, who volunteered for the event every year and helped organize the music. She recently died of cancer.

2020 Rotary Lights Santa button

This year's Rotary Lights Santa button will feature longtime volunteer, Sharon Earp from SSE Music, who volunteered for the event every year and recently died from cancer. The message on the button has also been changed to read that visitors "saw" Santa rather than met, and Santa is wearing a mask to add a piece of the pandemic.

Interim media director for the group Dave Larsen, who was already wearing his button, said when his wife saw who it was she nearly cried, because Earp meant so much to the group.

Dave Larsen


“Santa” is also wearing a mask on the button this year, and the message now reads “I saw Santa,” to account for no meet-and-greets.

“It’s going to look a little more unique because 2020 is a little unique,” Stephens said.

This year will feature some technological upgrades as well, including several of the light displays upgrading to LED bulbs. But the biggest new display will be the group’s first ever hologram.

New Rotary Lights hologram display

New at the 2020 Rotary Lights will be the event's first ever hologram. Pictured here is a series of fans that will spin and serve as the backdrop for the holographic image, an ongoing, moving set of wintery scenes.

Through a series of spinning fans, an ongoing set of moving winter scenes and images will be projected to create a new, unique display to which Stephens said, “Disney can eat their heart out.”

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