DULUTH — Holiday visitors to Glensheen mansion this year have full access to the tree-filled and candlelit 39-room house and its vintage nativity scenes, family ornaments and party place settings.
The mansion's current keepers say they want visitors to experience the house the way Chester Congdon's family did. While the turn-of-the-century estate on Lake Superior sees its most traffic in July and August, its holiday display gives the historic house another boost of visitors before settling into the quieter period — which lasts through the coldest months.
"Until you can see grass again," said Glensheen's marketing director, Mike Mayou.
A late-year visitor boost is a trend among local businesses and attractions that lean into the holiday season — either by lining the harborside with cottages for local makers to sell wares or by turning Bayfront Festival Park into acres upon acres of bright lights and holiday scenes.
While tourism numbers are still rolling in for 2023, Tricia Hobbs, the city's senior economic developer, said tourism tax collection is at a record high. The city collects tax on food and beverages (2.25%) and lodging (3%) — money that goes back to the local tourism industry. Between January and September 2023, that amounted to more than $11 million, a 7.4% increase from last year, she said.
'Christmas City, wonderful city'
For decades, the change of season here has been marked by the annual Christmas City of the North Parade, held the Friday before Thanksgiving. This procession along Superior Street was born in the mid-1950s as a way to push shoppers to the downtown retail district.
It also serves as a pop culture credit for the city: Merv Griffin recorded Hibbing native Don Peterson's song "Christmas City" at the behest of Bob Rich, who was the local NBC affiliate station manager.
The station's current vice president/general manager Todd Wentworth has only anecdotal evidence from parade spotters with overhead vantage points that this year's event was the largest in recent years. He said most parade-goers come from a 60-mile radius of Duluth — though some travel here from the Twin Cities.
It helped that this year the temperature was above freezing.
"I never had the need to put gloves on once," said Wentworth.
Blocks away on the bay, Bentleyville Tour of Lights always opens the day after the parade, offering a nearly mile-long walkable path through 5 million lights, past themed displays and s'mores stations to Santa's lap. It draws upward of 300,000 visitors; more than half travel at least 100 miles to see the sites. The self-guided tour opens daily at 5 p.m. and runs through Dec. 26.
This is the 20th anniversary of the tour that started in founder Nathan Bentley's yard — first in nearby Esko, then Cloquet. It moved to Bayfront Festival Park in 2009.
"Bentleyville coming to Bayfront has been incredibly impactful — and it's been great to see other businesses and organizations provide that Duluth holiday experience for visitors," said Hobbs. "Holiday tourism is a great way to extend our tourist season."
In 2022, the University of Minnesota Duluth's Labovitz School of Business estimated an economic impact of $24 million for the city from the free tour.
Duluth Winter Village, held annually on the harbor side of the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center (DECC), offers a strollable outdoor shopping experience, and last year tallied 25,000 visitors, according to Lucie Amundsen, DECC's communications director. This year's event is Dec. 2-3.
About 60% of the opening-day visitors travel from around the region or the Twin Cities, Amundsen said.
Seasonal Duluth, streaming
Duluth as a holiday destination is available to anyone with access to the internet. "Merry Kiss Cam" debuted last year and now another seasonal rom-com set here began streaming on Hallmark Movies Now this month.
"Rescuing Christmas" stars Rachael Leigh Cook, Sam Page and Bailey Stender, who is from Duluth. The movie is about a photographer (Cook) who wishes away Christmas — erasing the holiday from everyone's memory and the internet.
The cast and crew spent 16 days in town filming at locations including Lincoln Park and the dining room of a Tudor Revival house on East Superior Street. The movie includes 116 locals who filled in as extras for a scene filmed at Bayfront Festival Park. The production company, MarVista Entertainment, was also behind last year's Duluth-y rom-com "Merry Kiss Cam."
This second foray into holiday movies could add to Duluth's reputation.
"Duluth is continually recognized on a national level for its Christmas spirit," Hobbs said.