DULUTH - A gingerbread entrance, a penguin scene and an expanded gift shop are among the new features at Bentleyville Tour of Lights, a longtime attraction that draws hundreds of thousands of visitors to Bayfront Festival Park.
The display, which spans the 10-acre park on Duluth Harbor, is visible from the city's highest peaks and is among Duluth's top holiday destinations. About 350,000 people are expected to pass through the gates by the time it closes Dec. 26.
City officials and those behind local destinations are banking on Duluth's allure as the "Christmas City of the North" to further bolster tourism numbers after a strong summer and a stronger fall. In the past few months, attractions drew big numbers and hotel revenue, helped by higher prices, was up.
The city's goal was to stay close to the record-setting levels of 2021, said Tricia Hobbs, the economic developer for the city of Duluth who leads tourism efforts.
That happened, she said, and, in some cases, tourism indicators exceeded last summer's numbers.
Bright lights, European village
Duluth's holiday season started, as it has for decades, with the annual parade of marching bands, dancers and Grinches along Superior Street the Friday before Thanksgiving. The winter showcase began in the late 1950s as a way to lure people to the downtown shopping district. Its theme song, "Christmas City," was famously sung by a not-yet-famous Merv Griffin.
"Last Friday was our 64th airing of the Christmas City of the North Parade," said Todd Wentworth, vice president and general manager of Northern News Now, which hosts the event.
Duluth has increasingly leaned into its Christmas City distinction with a mix of holiday-themed attractions, ranging from the 5 million lightbulbs that make up Bentleyville's scenes and vignettes to the careful consideration of bedroom hues that designers use to craft decorations in the 39 rooms of Glensheen mansion.
People have proven willing to make a drive for it.
When Bentleyville moved from creator Nathan Bentley's yard in Cloquet to the public park in Duluth, city officials suggested he open the day after the parade. An estimated 60% of the free tour's visitors drive more than 100 miles for it. Visit Duluth, the city's tourism bureau, estimated in its most recent report that the event has an economic impact of $22 million.
Not long after MEA weekend, another high point on Glensheen's calendar: the Jacobean mansion closed to visitors so its staff could decorate it. Glensheen's holiday tour is among its highest draws, according to marketing manager Mike Mayou. It opened last week and runs through Jan. 8.
Glensheen reported 90,000 non-local visitors toured the mansion in 2016, when it posted its most recent findings on economic impact. Duluth and Superior residents make up less than 10% of the guests, according to Mayou.
The Duluth Entertainment Convention Center's Winter Village has benefited from its close proximity to Bentleyville. In its sixth year, the outdoor market is a collection of 25 cabins dressed in greenery and lights featuring local vendors. It runs Dec. 3-4 on Harbor Drive and is designed to look like a European village. Last year's event drew 20,000 visitors according to communications director Lucie Amundsen, despite a snowstorm on the second day.
A big fall
At times, members of the Duluth Attractions Council struggled to hit the high marks of 2021, according to Jane Jandl, who leads the 19-member group. Attendance was down in four of the 10 previous months, including July and August. But places like the Great Lakes Aquarium and Spirit Mountain, saw 75,000 more visitors last month than October 2021.
"We are really seeing that tourism season extend itself into October," said Hobbs. "The reality is, Duluth is that destination for much of Minnesota and specifically the Twin Cities."
High gas prices led to more travelers taking shorter trips, Hobbs said, and Duluth benefitted from that.
The William A. Irvin, parked in a slip alongside its keepers at the DECC, is among the local attractions that had a record-breaking number of visitors in the fall. That was helped along by its Halloween makeover to the Haunted Ship — a freighter turned fright show. There were 29,500 visitors this year, more than ever before in a year when DECC officials expected a dip in numbers.
"This was just a banner year," Amundsen said.
October visitor numbers at the Lake Superior Zoo were up 60% from the same month in 2019, and up 6% from last year. Executive Director Haley Hedstrom said higher attendance often falls in line with new exhibits, like last year's introduction of bears. That was coupled with the safety of being outdoors during the pandemic. She expects more of the same when red pandas move into the zoo in 2023.
Heading into winter, Hobbs said the city will tout the experiences Duluth offers after the crush of holiday events and attractions. Expect to hear more about snowshoeing, hiking, ice-skating and saunas as the region slips into its deep freeze. the city's marketing push suggests visitors "Winter like we do."
"Looking into January and February, sometimes that's a harder sell," Hobbs said.