LA CROSSE, Wis. (WLAX/WEUX) – For Thursday’s Hometown Holidays, we’ll take you to a Coulee Region favorite that includes millions of lights and more than 150 thousand visitors. First News at Nine’s Hayley Spitler shows us La Crosse’s Rotary Lights now in its 26th year and how it’s bringing an even bigger smile to attendee’s faces after a tough year.

2020 has been a difficult year filled with numerous cancellations, but as for La Crosse’s Rotary Lights, well those are still on.

For Holmen resident Brittany Mcilquhan, that means her family’s holiday tradition can continue for the eleventh year.

“It’s awesome just to get out, do something that we do every year. We try to walk through once and drive through once. It’s just nice to have something semi-normal,” said Mcilquhan.

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

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

Rotary Lights started 26 years ago as a lighting project for the city. Since then the Rotary Club has purchased over four 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 thousand visitors each year to
Riverside Park. 

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

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. Kids are now able to speak with Santa through a window via a microphone, and they’ve found a safe way to still give out treats.

Smores are now pre-packaged supply kits and the ice rink is open, but require you to bring your own skates.

While the lights are associated with December, over 32 hundred 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 it and repairing things that needed to be done. Creating new things for next year and so on. They go all year long,” said Stephens.

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 thousand items were shared with 14 area pantries.

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

After a year, that’s kept families indoors and struggling with 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 see other families. It’s just something to look forward to,” said Mcilquhan.

The lights are open most nights from 5 pm to 10 pm. Except on New Year’s Eve when they’ll stay on until 1 AM.

In La Crosse, Hayley Spitler, First News at Nine.