DULUTH – His wife was home in Eagan with their newborn, so Ben Wiedenfeld took the baby’s three older brothers and drove here Saturday for the grand opening of the first-ever drive-through Bentleyville Tour of Lights.
Wiedenfeld was armed with snacks (7-year-old Fox brought some leftover Halloween candy) and DVDs (including “Elf,” to get them in the holiday mood). By arriving 2½ hours early, his car snagged the first spot in line for Duluth’s annual Christmas lights extravaganza, which has long billed itself as the largest walk-through display in the country.
To ensure they were spreading Christmas cheer sans COVID-19 this year, Bentleyville organizers spent months crafting a plan to transform their usual maze of light displays into a spectacle patrons could take in from the safety — and warmth — of their cars.
Nathan Bentley, the event’s founder and executive director, knew it wouldn’t be the same. He’d miss greeting guests, cozying around bonfires and handing out hot cocoa.
“But if we can do something,” he said, “it’s better than nothing.”
Duluth residents and those visiting the city seemed forgiving of the scaling back of holiday events like Bentleyville and the Christmas City of the North Parade, instead expressing gratitude for something to celebrate as COVID-19 cases surge.
The Friday night parade has been a Duluth tradition since 1958, when it began as a way to get shoppers starting to think about Black Friday deals a week in advance. In recent years, the floats, dancers and musicians have drawn 12,000 spectators to downtown Superior Street.
No guests were allowed at this year’s parade, which was moved to a mostly empty Canal Park and broadcast by local TV station KBJR. Many of the performance segments were taped ahead of time, but viewers from across the country still tuned in, sending photos of their kids watching the parade eating pizza in pajamas.
“Be safe. Celebrate safe,” a masked Santa Claus said in an interview at the parade’s end. “This year will look a little different, but we’ll be able to celebrate in grand style come next year.”
Santa had a busy weekend in Duluth, appearing at Bentleyville the following evening to lead the caravan of cars from a horse-drawn carriage.
Children screamed greetings out their car windows to the jolly man in red as he traipsed through the parking lot in the lead-up to the lights tour. Volunteers dressed as reindeer and Frosty the Snowman danced to holiday tunes blasting from the radio station linked up to Bentleyville’s displays. The Grinch made multiple attempts at stealing the Salvation Army food and toy donations.
When Bentley counted down the seconds before the lights were flipped on, a chorus of cheers and car horns rose from the parking lot. Some families waited for more than two hours Saturday evening as the line for Bentleyville stretched more than a mile, all the way from Duluth’s Bayfront Park back to Interstate 535.
Bentleyville is an annual tradition for Nancy Reing, who drove down from Cook with her daughter-in-law and 6-year-old granddaughter. All three recently recovered from COVID-19 and have barely left home since.
“I don’t mind waiting,” Reing said. “This is the start of our Christmas.”
Hundreds of families slowly passed through Bentleyville on Saturday, sticking their heads out their car windows to ooh and aah at the dazzling displays. Those with children pulled over by Santa’s workshop to receive a souvenir hat and a bag of cookies, packaged in plastic bags that volunteers delivered using candy cane-striped poles. It took about 13 minutes for most vehicles to complete the entire circuit.
“Well worth it!” said Wiedenfeld, whose sons waved from the car as their dad pulled away to begin the drive home after their daylong Christmas outing.