26th year of Rotary Lights

Published: Dec. 10, 2020 at 8:46 PM CST
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2020 has been a difficult year filled with numerous cancellations, but La Crosse’s Rotary Lights are still on.

For Brittany McIlquhan that means her family’s holiday tradition can continue for the 11th year.

“It’s awesome just to get out, do something that we do every year,” McIlquhan explained. “We try to walk through [the lights] once and drive through once. It’s just nice to have something semi-normal.”

“We got hundreds of voicemails and emails thanking us for putting it on this year,” said Pat Stephens, the President of Rotary Lights. “It’s probably an outlet that’s needed more than ever before.”

“Last year we did it from the car with a little one and this year we get to get out because he’s walking,” said Lindsey Shaw of Tomah.

Rotary Lights started 26 years ago as a lighting project for the city.

Since then, the Rotary Club has purchased over 4 million lights.

With so many installations and activities, it takes a group of volunteers over four weeks to set up.

Such a large attraction brings in around 150,000 visitors each year to Riverside Park.

“We are way ahead of that number if it continues [at the pace it is going,” Stephens added. “This is our 12th night of operation here and we are way ahead in every category.”

Rotary Lights President Pat Stephens suspects the lights providing a good psychological boost is the reason behind the increased attendance.

Masks are highly suggested to be worn and provided for anyone who needs one.

For those who prefer to take a little more precaution, you can drive through Riverside Park and see all of the lights from the safety of your car.

A few changes were required to make the lights as safe as can be including kids speaking to Santa through a window via a microphone.

S’mores are now pre-packaged supply kits and the ice rink is open, but you’ll need to bring your own skates.

While the lights are associated with December, over 3,200 volunteers work countless hours on the project.

“It’s a 12-month operation. We will take everything down in the park in January--start fixing and repairing things that need to be done, creating new things for next year and so on-- they go all year long,” Stephens said.

The Christmas-themed event isn’t just a chance to see lights, but also a way to give back.

Canned food and monetary donations are collected.

Last year more than 300,000 items were shared with 14 area food pantries.

“There’s more people using the food pantries than ever before, some for the very first time because of the economic situation,” Stephens added. “We’ve got to boost those shelves so that everyone can be taken care of for months to come.”

After a year that’s kept families indoors and struggling to find safe activities, La Crosse’s Rotary Lights are a welcomed distraction.

“It’s been a challenging year I think for everyone and this is just something that brings joy and you get to see other families. [The lights are] just something to look forward to,” McIlquhan said.

The lights are open most nights from 5 PM to 10 PM, except on New Years Eve when they’ll stay on until 1 AM.

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