Rotary Lights return to La Crosse for 27th year

Published: Dec. 2, 2021 at 7:30 PM CST
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LA CROSSE, Wis. (WEAU) - The Rotary Lights display in La Crosse is back on for the season at Riverside Park.

The display embodies the Christmas spirit with a community coming together to help each other.

The lights have been lighting up the Coulee Region since 1995.

Starting after a rotary member returned from a trip to Oklahoma with the idea to create a display like he has seen there.

“Here we are 27 years later with a much larger display than we ever imagined,” said Pat Stephens, Rotary Lights president.

Much larger to the tune of 65 animated displays, 1,300 hundred candy canes, 1,200 extension cords and 70 electrical panels.

“We’ve purchased over the years about 3 and a half million lights and the past few years we’ve lost 33 trees in the park, so actually we have more lights than trees to put them in at this point,” Stephens explained.

All of those lights take 3,200 volunteers to setup. Larger pieces start entering Riverside Park in mid-October.

“The first week in November we empty out the warehouse, we bring everything down here and then literally there’s groups here every day [setting up] up until the day after Thanksgiving when we open up,” Stephens added.

There’s more to Rotary Lights than just seeing Christmas Lights. All throughout Riverside Park there are plenty of activities to enjoy.

There’s band performances, Santa visits, live reindeer, a smore’s station and the collection of non-perishable food-- which Stephens says much like the lights have grown each year.

“Last year in 2020, we collected 284,000 food items to supply 14 food pantries for about 3 and a half months, so the community has been extremely generous.”

Generous again when for the first time ever, organizers weren’t sure if the Rotary Lights would happen this winter.

In October, many of the electrical panels were cut by vandals causing an estimated $10,000 in damage.

“Our group will tell you that in a number of conversations, I couldn’t help but get tears in my eyes,” Stephens reflected. “We had offers of help, we had volunteer electricians that came in. We got some financial contributions from five different states.”

Coming together to ensure the Christmas tradition continued.

“I think it’s beautiful. I think that everything that is going on is perfect for families, for friends,” said Sheri Grass-Redfox, a Tomah resident visiting the lights. “We are just loving it. It’s an incredibly beautiful evening and the lights are magical.”

“As you get into the 27th year, we’re getting into the next generation and the third generation which is kind of neat as well,” Stephens said. “Little kids that came to see Santa years ago are now bringing their own kids.”

For people who think the lights are just for kids, the 50+ La Crosse group disagrees.

“No way. No way. It’s a lot of fun,” Grass-Redfox added.

This year’s Rotary Lights includes a bigger ice castle for live performances, a new horse-drawn carriage light display and the addition of two new mascots, Katie and Kilo Watts.

The lights will be on every night through New Years Eve when they stay on until 1 am.

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