If Symphony of Lights is destined to become a walking event rather than a drive-through affair; here are 10 ideas to make it awesome, keep the holiday tradition in Downtown Columbia, and continue to raise money for Howard County General Hospital.
But before we get to my list of ideas for a Symphony of Lights Winter Festival, this is not the year to make a change. The coronavirus crisis will still be around this winter and a large crowded event will not be feasible or safe. Not to mention, there is not enough time left to plan it properly. So, for one last year, I hope that the event will continue as a vehicle procession as it has for the past 25 years. With so much change and abnormality as we learn to live in a Covid world, this is one Columbia tradition that can carry on without modification in the midst of this pandemic and give all some holiday cheer while benefiting the hospital and health care workers on the front lines of this crisis. Personally, I think the fairest and best compromise to this dispute would be for the parties to the lawsuit could come to an agreement to allow one last drive-through event this winter (working together to identify the safest and least destructive route and with increased transparency on financials and charitable contributions) while agreeing to begin coordinating on a Winter Festival in 2021. This could be a win/win for all parties and ensure continuity of a winter festival in Downtown Columbia.
One last drive through event this year could be the biggest and most successful year yet because there is (A) an absence of other safe socially distanced holiday events, (B) a renewed public desire to support hospitals and health care workers, and (C) knowledge that this is the last chance to see the spectacular light displays from the comfort of your own vehicle. Maybe all this publicly about the lawsuit can end up being a good thing in helping to drive interest in the event and raising even more money for the Hospital?!
Behind 2020; I believe that a walking event is much more appropriate for our changing town center anyway. And by walking, I don't mean an event just like the current one (minus your car) where families pay for the privilege of walking long distances in the cold and dark just to view the light displays they used to be able to drive their own cars through. Instead, I envision the future Symphony of Lights to be more like an outdoor winter festival that has much more to do than just view the lights. After all, Downtown Columbia is transforming into a vibrant walkable cultural destination full of residences, restaurants, workplaces, hotels, retail and entertainment options. As all these things open, there will be more and more people and less and less room for moving vehicles. That can certainly be a good thing! Isn't getting people out of their cars and onto the streets a major part of the downtown plan?
With that said, here are my ideas for a revisited "Symphony of Lights" Winter Festival, taking inspiration from many of the regional winter events and festivals that take place in DC and Baltimore, such as ZooLights at the National Zoo or the German Christmas Village in Baltimore's Inner Arbor.
1. Symphony of Lights - THE RIDE. Take Symphony of Lights as we know it; subtract out driving your own vehicle, and instead use a tractor pull (think hayride at a Fall Festival), miniature train, or other type of open-air large-capacity vehicle driven by staff. You can even use golf carts for those with mobility issues that can originate near accessible parking. Regardless of the vehicles used, all the Symphony of Lights LEDs are set up in a suitable location (maybe inside Merriweather Post Pavilion itself so you can only see the lights up close from the ride) where passengers queue outside to board a vehicle for a ride that travels through all the lights while holiday music plays through on-vehicle speakers. This could continue to be the primary draw of Symphony of Light.
2. Concessions: We all know that food and beverage sales are a primary source of revenue for large events and festivals. And you miss out on that with the vehicle drive-through since nobody gets out of their cars! A re-imagined Symphony of Lights Outdoor Festival could sell their own winter-inspired menus and drinks. Think: Hot chocolate or cider. Fondue. Soup. Chili. Other winter favorites that warm the belly.
3. "Snowless" Snow-tubing: This is by far the highlight for kids at ZooLights at The National Zoo every year. "Snowless" snow-tubing down an artificial track. Would require an upfront investment for the tubes and track but you could you can charge a nominal fee, like $3/ride, as they do at ZooLights.
4. Pop-up "Apre-ski" Beer Garden: All the fun of a ski vacation minus the skiing. Now this would really help draw young adults to the event, especially as more housing options become available downtown and more and more young professionals are drawn to living here. Create a 21+ winter beer garden complete with heat lamps, firepits; warming tents; boozy winter cocktails, mulled wine, or winter brews. Wear wool socks and a cozy sweater. Snuggle up with loved ones or swap stories with friends. Hygge defined. These winter "pop-up" bars, often themed as a ski lodge or icy wonderland with themed drinks to match, pop up in cities like DC every winter. Symphony Woods would be a way cooler venue for this concept than a parking lot in DC.
5. Kids Events and Character Meet and Greets. Inner Arbor Trust's "Fire and Ice" event last winter had a character meet and greets with Santa as well as Anna and Elsa from Frozen that were a huge hit with the kids. Could charge for the photo-op with proceeds benefiting the Hospital. Some simple arts-and-crafts tables where kids can make their own snowflake or get their facepainted also would be a hike with the family crowd.
6. Holiday Market and/or Christmas Village. Allow local artists and businesses a chance to sell their art or products in a fun outdoor holiday market.
7. Fire Pits and S'mores: Safe gas-fired outdoor firepits with benches, chairs, or tree-trunk stools can be scattered throughout the grounds with S'mores kits available for purchase.
8. Ice-Skating. Ice Sculptures. A temporary ice-skating rink is already planned for Color Burst Park during the winters. This can certainly be integrated into the Festival. And everybody love's Ice Sculptures.
9. Concerts: A series of concerts can be planned for either The Chrysalis or on the stage of Merriweather Post Pavilion. Doesn't have to be professional musicians or a popular band. Holiday music from local HCPSS student groups would be great. I recognize that outdoor concerts in December are dicey given the weather, but there are enough warmer nights that many scheduled concerts should be able to happen as scheduled and there can be backup dates reserved as well. This would also help draw friends and families of performers to the festival.
10. Benefit the Hospital. The hospital received $75,000 for the 2019 event. Between admission, ride tickets, concessions, vendor fees and donations as outlined above; I think an improved walking event can easily exceed this target while also providing additional revenue for the non-profits DCACC and IAT.
Of course, all of this would require the various downtown parties to work together on creating awesome programming and events in Downtown Columbia instead of wasting their time and our money feuding and fighting each other in court.
Imagine how cool of an event could occur if the downtown arts organizations worked together on a single coordinated event? I can imagine IMA and The DCACC putting on an awesome Symphony of Lights ride or walk-through light display inside Merriweather Post Pavilion while selling concessions and smores. IAT and CA could host kids activities, character meet and greets and snow-tubing in Symphony Woods, as well as create an apre-ski pop-up bar in a sweet location surrounded by trees. Ice-skating, ice sculptures, and a winter market could be set up in the Merriweather District by Howard Hughes Corp. Local restaurants (organized by the Downtown Columbia Partnership) could get involved too by offering special winter menus and providing a warm cozy setting inside to escape the cold. Toby's Dinner Theater and Columbia Center for Theatrical Arts can put on children and adult winter-themed theater productions. All coordinated and marketed together under the umbrella of a single "Symphony of Lights" Winter Festival that draws tons of people to Downtown Columbia and earns significantly more money than a vehicle parade ever could.