Explore Park has transformed into a pathway lined with more than 500,000 Christmas lights in a new venture born of a collaboration between Roanoke County Parks, Recreation and Tourism and Center in the Square.

“The idea is to have the finest light display in Virginia,” said Center President and General Manager Jim Sears.

The half-mile, handicapped-accessible trail through the woods will lead visitors past gatherings of birds, butterflies, toys, flowers, candy canes, snowflakes and more, all made from lights. There will be oversize sculptures of cute animals, strings of colored lights arranged into tunnels and a Santa or two. As Sears put it, visitors will “take in the sights and sounds of the season.”

Scott Ramsburg, business and information manager for Roanoke County parks, described some of the preparations involved. “I’m doing odd things like putting snow machines together and placing music along the trail.”

If all goes as planned, IllumiNights will become an annual tradition. “It’s not just sticking lights on trees,” Sears said. “It’s a festive event that I think parents and children and families of all sizes will enjoy.”

IllumiNights takes place over 26 days, starting Friday and ending Jan. 1. Tickets purchased online are $13 for ages 15 and older and $6 for ages 2 to 14. Tickets purchased at the gate are $17 and $10. The event serves as a fundraiser for both Center and Roanoke County Parks.

IllumiNights expands in a big way on Explore Park’s Holiday Village event in 2018, which Center in the Square’s fundraising resources made possible. “They’re helping us bankroll the initial investment,” Ramsburg said.

For visitors who drive to IllumiNights on a whim, parking might be a challenge. Noting that the Holiday Village had 2,000 visitors a night, Ramsburg strongly advised purchasing IllumiNights tickets online and thus reserving a time to arrive.

Free activities on the IllumiNights calendar include:

n An arts and crafts Christmas market with about 60 vendors

n The Children’s Santa Shop, where kids can shop for presents without their parents, “no adults allowed” — although in fact park staff will be around to supervise.

n Edible art, i.e., decorating holiday cookies that can immediately thereafter be consumed

n Marshmallow roasting by the park’s Taubman Center

n Visits from the jolly old elf himself — Santa!

There will also, on some nights, be carriage rides, with a charge per person of $10 for wagon seating and $15 for a Cinderella-style covered ride.

IllumiNights events will be overseen by 12 to 18 park employees a night, with help over the course of the event from up to 500 volunteers recruited by Center. Those interested in volunteering can contact Center administrative assistant Cat Turi at 342-5719 or email her at cturi@centerinthesquare.org.

“It’s a true partnership,” Sears said.

For Center in the Square, IllumiNights comes as a continuation of the nonprofit’s self-generated revenue projects, preceded by such ventures as the Roanoke Pinball Museum, Kids Square children’s museum and Starcade.

Sears estimated IllumiNight’s cost at $550,000, and said he believed it could earn a net profit of at least $600,000.

“I spent two years with this on my mind,” Sears said. “I’d driven through the one at Virginia Beach.” The quest for an outdoor setting with access to electricity eventually led to Explore Park. “It’s a way to give a benefit to the community that it doesn’t currently have.”

The Roanoke Times is an IllumiNights sponsor.

Mike Allen covers government happenings in Franklin County and Botetourt County for The Roanoke Times and also writes the weekly Arts & Extras column.

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