If you’re looking to brighten up your holiday season, one surefire way to do that is to take a stroll—or a drive—through Rotary Lights in the Park at Krouskop Park in Richland Center. It’s not just the cheerful displays that will fill you with holiday spirit, although the sparkling lights that cover the show area from Thanksgiving Eve to New Year’s Eve will certainly do the trick. You’ll also feel the warmth of the community embrace that enables the small city of Richland Center (population 5,100) to put on a holiday light show of this magnitude, which last year drew more than 14,000 visitors from all over southwest Wisconsin and beyond.
“We wouldn’t be able to do this unless we had the volunteers in the community,” said Dottie Behling, a longtime Rotary Club member and chair of Rotary Lights in the Park. “Our Rotary Club isn’t big enough for us to do this all by ourselves. So volunteers assist with repairing, building, and assembling displays from February through October. November 1 show set up begins. During the show other volunteers will come in and work evenings when we have the lights on and people are coming through.”
Among those volunteers are employees and directors of Richland Electric Cooperative, who staff the event for a night during its monthlong run. Richland Electric is also among the area businesses and organizations that sponsor a decorated Christmas tree at the park.
Visitors are just as generous as the sponsors and volunteers. Because of the community support, the Rotary Club is able to offer the holiday light display to the public for free. Instead of charging admission to walk or drive through the brightly lit park, the club accepts donations to the Richland Community Food Pantry from anyone who wants to contribute. At last year’s event, the club collected 6,373 non-perishable food items and almost $4,500 in cash donations for the food pantry.
Richland Electric Cooperative employees and directors volunteer an evening to
staff the Rotary Lights in the Park each year. This year, REC’s volunteer night is
December 7. In addition to volunteering, Richland Electric supports the show
monetarily, having donated $5,000 since the show began 11 years ago.
For the price of an optional food-pantry donation, guests are treated to a spectacular scene of holiday cheer, lit up solely with energy-saving LED bulbs. The grand centerpiece of the show is a 45-foot tree with 29,000 flashing lights that change patterns in sync with the holiday music that’s piped through the park. There’s also a lane of decorated Christmas trees reflecting the businesses and organizations that sponsor them, another portion of trees decorated in memory of loved ones, a tunnel of arches that light up to music in alternating patterns, and a patriotic tribute featuring military emblems, silhouettes, and a big American flag.
The many jolly animated displays—121 of them at last count—include a snowman on skis and a mouse on a sled sliding down a hill; a Ferris wheel with candy cane seats turning round and round; a fire-breathing dragon; and a farm scene complete with reindeer peeking through the windows of a little red barn, a red tractor pulling a wagon of Christmas trees, and an old-fashioned windmill with blades spinning.
New for 2022
Rotary Lights in the Park at Richland Center has been growing and evolving since the event was first launched in 2011, so repeat visitors always see something new.
Heading up the grounds crew for the event are Rotary Club members Keith Behling and Richard Wastlick, who work year-round acquiring and building new displays as well as maintaining existing ones. They also oversee display setup at the park, which begins in early November, as well as display breakdown after the holiday season is over. “Without them the show wouldn’t go on,” Dottie Behling pointed out.
For the 2022 season, Keith Behling said the club is introducing 11 new elements. Among the new animated features is a 13-foot carousel that rotates, a streetcar with turning wheels, a green tractor with Santa Claus riding in it, a horse-drawn carriage, a pair of gingerbread figures playing on a teeter-totter, a jack-in-the-box, and a bear with penguins sliding down its back.
“We’re also adding eight race cars all put together in one display,” Behling said. “There will be two different rows of those cars with four in each row, and they’ll be on sequence controls so it looks like they’re racing.”
And as always, some of the existing favorites have been tweaked. Behling said the sledding mouse mentioned earlier will now be sliding down a hill through an 8-foot hoop of “fire” that’s been added to the scene.
“We keep adding displays to keep people’s interest in our show,” Behling said. “Maybe we will fill up the show section of the park.”
Walk or Drive
Rotary Lights in the Park opens on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving—November 23—and is open every evening through New Year’s Eve. It’s open to walkers only from 6 to 6:50 p.m., and then for vehicle drive-through only from 7 to 9 p.m.
“The best way to see it, if you’re capable, is walking through,” Behling advised, “and if you’re going to do that it’s best you come as close to 6 as possible so you have plenty of time to stop and look and take in everything that’s there.”
Behling added that those who choose to walk through should enter from WI Hwy 80 into the north parking lot by the athletic fields and walk across the footbridge lit with blue lights to the show entrance. Drive-through entry is via North Jefferson St.
Whether you walk or drive, a trip through the Rotary Lights in the Park is sure to make your holidays merry and bright.—Mary Erickson
Rotary Lights in the Park is located at Krouskop Park, 1050 Orange St., Richland Center WI 53581. It’s open Wednesday, November 23, through Saturday, December 31, from 6 to 9 p.m., with walk-through traffic only from 6 to 6:50 p.m. and drive-through traffic only from 7 to 9 p.m. For more information, visit www.richlandcountyrotaryclub.com.