DULUTH — With thousands of free cups of cocoa, bags of cookies and signature winter hats for kids, Nathan Bentley is preparing for a record year of visitors to Duluth's Bentleyville this season.

And the executive director of the annual Christmas light display at Bayfront Festival Park has a hot tip for tour-goers:

"Don't come early, come late," Bentley said, especially if you're kid-free. "Come at 8:30, 9 p.m. Spread yourself out."

Last year's pandemic-induced drive-through event led to hours-long waits in cars, especially for those who arrived early and on weekends, and the city's major Interstate 35 construction project will make traffic a "huge challenge" this year, he said, for the event that opened Saturday.

But aside from some Santa Claus-related COVID protocols — no sitting on his lap this year — the tour of more than 5 million twinkling lights returns to normal.

About $250,000 of a $750,000 budget was spent on new displays, including more Instagram-worthy walk-in photo backgrounds and stops for inevitable proposals, a unicorn, a tree farm and a "together again" theme.

Also new this year is round-the-clock video surveillance. Thieves and vandals have consistently plagued the attraction after hours. Duluth's Downtown Computer donated the system.

All of Bentleyville's lights now use the more efficient LED bulbs, including 6 miles of rope lights. The city of Duluth pays the electricity bill as part of its contract with the organization to keep the attraction at Bayfront. Last year the bill was $12,000, said Kate Van Daele, a city spokeswoman. (More — $45,000 — is spent on those free cookies and cocoa.)

"We are more than happy to pay for the power bill," Van Daele said, noting recent increases are due to the cost of LED lights. "It brings so much to the city of Duluth, not only because it's at a time when we aren't seeing the tourism numbers we see at other times of the year, but it's a great free experience that brings so much joy and hope."

Bentleyville leadership recently declined $50,000 in 2022 tourism tax money it was to receive under a proposal by Duluth Mayor Emily Larson. They had requested the money, Bentley said, when there was uncertainty about whether the city's new marketing firm would promote the attraction. When it became clear it would, he said, they didn't want to "double-dip."

The nonprofit tourism bureau Visit Duluth has promoted Bentleyville this year, from Michigan's Upper Peninsula to the Dakotas. Its president, Anna Tanski, said she, too, expects a record-breaking year.

"People do feel safe in an outdoor environment," she said. "Now more than ever, people really appreciate the spirit of giving and giving back."

In 2020, Bentleyville visitors donated nearly 20,000 pounds of food and 3,000 toys to the Salvation Army. And because no one waited in line to see Santa, more children — 39,000 — received winter caps, as Santa flung them into every car with kids. Organizers started with 25,000 and had to secure more as demand grew.

Bentley, who in 2001 started decorating his Esko property, which eventually led to the Bayfront event, said several hundred volunteer shifts are unfilled, even as they expect at least 350,000 visitors. Volunteers can sign up at bentleyvilleusa.org. The attraction is open through Dec. 27.

Despite last year's reduced revenue, sponsors and visitors, Bentley has no regrets about maintaining the annual tradition.

"Everybody is going to remember that one year they sat in their cars at Bentleyville," he said.