By Kristy Alpert
The Grand Central region boasts some of the country’s most amazing and unique ways to get in the holiday spirit. From drive-through displays that offer the chance to soak in some quick holiday merriment to rows of stately Santas representing all corners of the world that entice groups to stick around for funky photo opportunities, holidays bring a variety of great experiences to the central states.
Over the holidays, Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma come alive with festivals and attractions that fit like a warm, wooly glove for group travelers. Whether you’re on the lookout for a quick holiday fix to break up a long road trip or a destination that breathes as much regional flair into the festivities as possible, any one of these group-friendly gatherings is sure to muster merriment for all.
Enchanted Land of Lights and Legends
Pine Bluff, Arkansas
Begun in 1997 as an attraction to bring people into the Pine Bluff area during the holiday season to boost the town’s image and increase shopping, the Enchanted Land of Lights and Legends has grown from a small operation that featured 40 festive displays to a must-see Christmas event that’s been rated “Festival of the Year” for the state of Arkansas.
“Now we have over 220 displays in 165 locations,” said Greg Gustek, Pine Bluff native and executive director for the Pine Bluff Festival Association, a not-for-profit corporation that hosts the annual Enchanted Land of Lights and Legends. “My favorite thing each year is getting a big thanks from a mother with a car full of kids screaming and having so much fun, and it really does not cost her anything.”
The grandiose displays make it easy for tour buses and church buses to drive through in complete safety during the dark winter months; gleaming lights guide groups on the 1.3-mile road through the park. The 2013 season will open November 19 and will run through New Year’s Eve.
Lights of the Delta
Although the tradition of decorating downtown Blytheville started in 1995, the official Lights of the Delta didn’t open until November 2001, when local city advocate George Hubbard and his partner transformed the tradition into a drive-through attraction that featured 14 displays.
“We put in 600 trees and built a half a mile of roadway, and put a lot of electrical equipment in and added two displays to the 14 we started with,” said Hubbard, executive director of the Lights of the Delta. “This was our 11th year; since then, we were up to 48 displays this year. We’re putting up 6 million lights and 48 major displays, and every year we’ve continually added to the displays to keep it fresh and vibrant and keep people coming in.”
This year’s event runs from November 25 through December 27. Although it is marketed as a stop-over destination event where most groups drive through on their way to Opryland or Johnny Cash’s birthplace, the Lights of the Delta offers many chances for groups to get out and explore the festivities, from hayrides with hot cocoa to free photos with Santa and the souvenir stand, where volunteers sell annually designed collectible ornaments and other gifts.
“We even have packages put together for overnight stays, and we also offer step-on guides,” Hubbard said. “We do an armed forces night each year, and a lot of our military families with family members overseas will take pictures with Santa and email them over to their loved ones in Iraq or wherever. It’s a pretty cool thing.”