By Richard S. Gubbe
‘Tis the season to get off the couch.
The cold weather has been inspiring to folks in the region, flushing them outside into the fresh air in droves, both day and night. Perhaps the prodding of a free family event was even more inspirational the Saturday after Thanksgiving as Stroll on State drew upward of 60,000 people, approximately twice as many as last year. Adding to the winter wonderland scene, Christmas came to life at Nicholas Conservatory as the rides on the Polar Express jaunt and Santa himself drew massive, unpredictable interest.
The second Stroll on State, a five-hour celebration of fireworks, ice skating, ice sculpting, horse and wagon rides, food and other family fun in downtown Rockford, was a success on all fronts. The third event next year will see an expansion of vendors, more activities and easier access.
Josh Albrecht, director of marketing and public affairs for the Rockford Convention and Visitors Bureau, and Tim Dimke, executive director for the Rockford Park District, said the event came off without a hitch because of all the entities that performed in synergistic fashion.
“We have created an event for people to come together at the holiday,” Dimke said.
Free admission helped.
“We focus on affordable family activities,” Albrecht said.
Both said the city has created a special type of special event while using accolades like “a little bit of holiday magic,” “community spirit,” “all in” and “a family gathering” to describe the result. Government agencies, local businesses, churches, volunteers and sponsors responded to solidify that weekend as a yearly spectacle.
Assistant Deputy Chief Patrick Hoey of the Rockford Police Department reported no incidents for Stroll on State, saying reports from his officers included seeing “Only smiling faces.”
Dimke said estimates were almost double last year’s estimate of 30,000 people, aided by favorable weather, community spirit and people looking for economic relief.
Off-site parking at Heartland Church made it easier for people to move around. “We really found visitors that came to the event embraced it,” Albrecht said.
Holiday magic? How else do you explain throngs of people downtown on the State Street bridge on Saturday night and a waiting list of 500 people to get on the Polar Express attraction that leaves from Nicholas Conservatory?
At Nicholas Conservatory, five more trolley cars might not have been enough to handle the desired seats for the Polar Express. Additional rides were added Monday by Kelly Moore, manager of Nicholas Conservatory. Topping out the capability of a new program was merely throwing a snowball at the real Polar Express.
The waiting list to get on Trolley Car 36 remains at 250 for a trip along the riverfront to a holiday tent to receive a story from Polar Express and some hot chocolate. The price of the trip is $5 for adults and $3 for children. The overwhelming interest was not anticipated, but welcomed. Moore came up with the program and said the rides were sold out two weeks ago.
“We have opened up a few extra tours, and we still have 250 on the waiting list,” she said. “It’s unbelievable how the public responded to it. We wanted it to be popular, but we didn’t realize it would be that crazy. Next year, we are going to expand it more for a longer time period.”
Next year will see a probable increase in fees to capitalize on its popularity as a revenue producer.
“We certainly look at supply and demand, and an increase is something we would look at,” Dimke said.
Moore said, “Not a crazy price — like $5 and $7.”
She said a lot of adults went on the ride without children, and there may be a different rate for adults without children.
“It hit a home run right out of the gate,” Dimke said. He added it’s been the focus of the Park District board the last few years to provide more family-oriented, affordable events — indoors and outdoors.
• Alpine Hills: The Park District is only a few days away from opening Alpine Hills.
Dimke said: “Last winter was their lifetime winter. We think that will be as big a hit as the Polar Express.”
Located at 4403 Larson Ave. southwest of Alpine and State, the park opened in 2011 after the Hansberger family donated Alpine Hills Golf Course to the Rockford Park District Foundation. The 52-acre facility features year-round activities for all ages, including ziplining, a snow park and a five-hole golf course.
• All Aglow: The holiday light exhibit at Nicholas Conservatory & Gardens runs through Jan. 6 and features a holiday display throughout the conservatory and the outdoor gardens. Weekend family activities include gingerbread decorating, holiday crafts and music. Aglow hours beginning Dec. 9 are: Tuesdays and Thursdays from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Wednesdays and Fridays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; and Saturdays and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
• Breakfast with Santa: Enjoy a family-friendly holiday-themed breakfast with jolly old Saint Nicholas in a warm, tropical environment. Enjoy holiday games, crafts, tattoos and photos with Santa on two dates: Dec. 6 and 13, from 8 to 9:30 a.m.
• Gingerbread Contest: Nicholas Conservatory & Gardens is hosting a Gingerbread Contest as part of the All Aglow holiday activities. Prizes will be awarded in six categories. Judging will be conducted Dec. 20, from noon to 1:30 p.m., by a team of Nicholas Conservatory staff and community members. Entries will be available for public viewing during public hours through Dec. 30. Call Lyndi Toohill at (815) 987-8858 for info.
• Festival of Lights: The 26th Annual Festival of Lights in Sinnissippi Park is ongoing. The festival, which began in the late 1980s with 11 displays, has grown to more than 50 displays. Businesses, churches, schools, clubs and other organizations take part in the drive-through event. Festival of Lights viewing is from 5 to 10 p.m. through Dec. 28. Santa will be spending time each Friday and Saturday night by the donation box from 7 to 9 p.m. to accept letters through Dec. 21. (If Santa is not present, drop your letter in the North Pole Express mailbox next to the donation box. Use a return address, and Santa will write back.)
From the Dec. 3-9, 2014, issue