From Hurricane Katrina to coronavirus, how Celebration in the Oaks is coming full circle

BY MISSY WILKINSON | CONTRIBUTING WRITER

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In December 2005, swaths of New Orleans remained dark and empty because of Hurricane Katrina’s floodwaters, and Celebration in the Oaks organizers faced a challenge. How to mount the drive-thru holiday lights show when downed trees marred City Park’s landscape and the storm had destroyed its electrical infrastructure? Their solution was to condense the event’s footprint. Celebration in the Oaks became a pedestrian-only tour in the Carousel Gardens Amusement Park and New Orleans Botanical Garden.

Fifteen years later, things have come full circle. Another disaster, the coronavirus pandemic, prompted a shift back to the driving tour and eliminated the pedestrian portion.

“In the age of COVID, where social distancing and mask wearing is necessary and there are capacity limits, we thought the safe way to do Celebration in the Oaks would be to bring back the driving tour,” said City Park CEO Bob Becker. “That way, people can enjoy Christmas lights from the safety and security of their car.”

A 2.25-mile driving loop through City Park’s live oaks and lagoons means attendees can view more than 1 million lights while staying in their cars. Live entertainment, parties and amusement park rides are a no-go this year, but people who fondly remember the driving tour from the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s appreciate Celebration in the Oaks’ return to its vehicular roots.

“Some people say, ‘This is fantastic — I loved the driving tour before Katrina ruined it, and we’re glad you’re bringing it back,’” Becker said.

Attendees can expect to see familiar light displays from years past. Monstro, the 24-foot whale from "Pinocchio," returns for the first time since 2004, as does a 15-foot waving Santa. Unlike the light displays in other parts of the country, City Park’s installations are made in-house. Since August, builders Rusty Van Velsen, Steve Birney and Joey Donnelly and electrician Richard Martinez have worked seven-day weeks installing the park’s infrastructure and displays. Many displays are handmade and place uniquely New Orleans imagery, such as beer-swilling crawfish, alongside more traditional holiday motifs and whimsical displays of dinosaurs, bugs and flamingos.

Although Hurricane Zeta’s 110 mph winds crumpled the pirate ship last month, it is back on the route.

“The Celebration crew had (the pirate ship) repaired in one day,” said Julie LaCour, City Park's director of special events and director of Celebration in the Oaks. “Adapting to disasters is what we do best. Everyone that works here kind of rolls with the punches.”

New this year are light-up tributes to health care workers and acrylic dividers in the miniature train. A train ride ticket includes hot chocolate and entry to Storyland, where marshmallow roasting stations, more than 25 holiday trees decorated by local schoolchildren, and Mr. Bingle photo opportunities await.

“This whole event is a labor of love for us,” LaCour said. “We have the largest grove of ancient live oaks in the world, and the lights enhance the trees. When it comes together, it’s really just magical.”

Ticket sales have been “fairly robust,” LaCour said, but because the park can handle 400 cars an hour, plenty of prime-time slots are still available. Celebration in the Oaks takes place nightly Thanksgiving through Jan. 3, except for Christmas and New Year's eves. Ticket prices range from $18.99 to $175 per vehicle. All ticket sales are contactless, and attendees must prebook a time and date using the park’s online reservation system. The driving tour takes 30 to 45 minutes to complete.

Organizers hope a successful event will bring New Orleanians a welcome sense of normalcy during a traumatic, chaotic time. They’re also hoping it will shore up funding for the 1,300-acre urban public park, which is 90% self-funded and has taken a major hit. City Park workers have been laid off and taken salary cuts in the wake of a pandemic that canceled the major events, weddings and galas that raise funds for City Park. Although Gov. John Bel Edwards signed a bill directing $2.5 million from the state budget to City Park in 2021, it’s not enough to staunch the park’s losses.

“Celebration in the Oaks has accounted in the past for about 10% of all the money the park would make in the entire year,” Becker said. “It’s extremely important, from a financial point of view, for the park. … Like many institutions, City Park is having a difficult time, and one direct way people can help the park is by enjoying themselves at Celebration in the Oaks.”