Winterfest Kickoff in Gatlinburg | RTX Traveler Magazine

WinterFest Web (8)While some resort towns and areas supported by tourism all but close their doors and hibernate for the winter, the small and energetic towns of the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee – Gatlinburg, Sevierville and Pigeon Forge – light up and get out, and encourage visitors and locals alike to do the same. Each town has its own kickoff event and from November through February, Winterfest is celebrated throughout these communities with holiday shows and events, special tours, activities hosted by local businesses and plenty of holiday lights to admire.

This year marks the 23rd annual celebration of Winterfest and Gatlinburg’s kickoff on November 7 proved to be a chilly fall night, but there was plenty to warm attendees during the event including a chili cookoff and entertainment provided by popular Beatles tribute band from Knoxville, The Beat 64.

After sampling 16 different chili varieties provided by restaurants, attractions, civic groups, retailers, banks, and public service agencies and choosing a favorite for the People’s Choice Award, many event attendees shuffled off to the main trolley stop in town for the first night of the Trolley Ride of Lights.

Each night of Winterfest at 6:30, 7:30 and 8:30, trolleys travel through downtown Gatlinburg and several miles on 321 to view the town’s light displays. Throughout the nearly hour long ride, a guide will entertain guests while teaching them a thing or two about the area’s history.

One of the first factoids learned is that some of the light displays are the same fixtures that were used during the first Winterfest events nearly 30 years ago. The bulbs have been traded for more energy-efficient LED lights, but the actual displays have stood the test of time. The cost of three days of using the original bulbs is about equivalent to the electricity costs of the entire 120 day duration of Winterfest today.

Another light fact is that it takes about two months to put up and take down all of the lights before and after the festival. So, for eight months of the year, lights are a central focus of downtown Gatlinburg. With more than three million lights and displays reaching up to 40 feet tall, it’s easy to see what all the fuss is about. Displays feature animals indigenous to Great Smoky Mountains National Park including deer, foxes, squirrels and rabbits. Fanciful snowmen, dancing fountains, a group of international children and a shiny rocking horse have joined the lineup along with tributes to the area’s history with displays featuring moonshiners, Davy Crockett and Civil War soldiers.

Other events happening throughout the Winterfest months include events and specials offered at local businesses, a Christmas parade, Christmas shows at local theaters, fireworks displays, ice carving competitions, a 5K race, 3D light adventures and a New Year’s Eve Ball Drop.

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