Hot Springs has been a tourist destination for centuries but visitors during the winter months can see the city in a whole new light – enjoying holiday activities in the soft glow of twinkling displays that bring a sense of wonder and enchantment to the season and all its festivities.
With a ceremonious flip of a switch, broadcast live on television, downtown Hot Springs was instantly aglow in all the colors of the season. The holiday lights flickered and danced and seemingly dripped from the trees, exciting a cheerful crowd of onlookers. We all had bellies full of chili following the annual Tom Daniel Holiday Chili Cook-off which helps fund the downtown lights. Held on the Monday before Thanksgiving in the Exchange Street Parking Plaza, the event features all-you-can-eat chili made by local businesses, organizations and individuals who vie for trophies and cash prizes. Presented by the Downtown Association of Hot Springs, the cook-off has grown into a community-wide tradition with live music and thousands of people in attendance.
“It kind of kicks off the Christmas season because the lights are turned on at that event,” said Greg Mabry, president of the Downtown Association of Hot Springs. “It’s a really unique experience that you’re not going to find just anywhere.”
Following the cook-off, my family and I strolled through downtown taking in all the lights. The City’s Parks & Trails department installs more than 1 million lights each year at various locations: Arlington Lawn, Hill Wheatley Plaza, Kenneth Adair Memorial Park, and the Hot Springs Convention Center lawn. In addition to its festive displays, Hot Springs hosts several seasonal celebrations and is home to Arkansas’ only year-round Christmas store, Kringles in the Park, making it a great destination for holiday fun. Below are some of the can’t-miss events that make the season extra bright.
A magical and mesmerizing display, Garvan Woodland Gardens Holiday Lights is a sight to behold with nearly 5 million lights spanning 18 acres. Existing features, such as trees and bridges, are draped in lights, while playful, three-dimensional displays, crafted in-house by artisanal welders, are placed throughout the gardens. There are blooming flowers, butterflies in flight, gingerbread men and toy soldiers. Larger-than-life displays include an ice palace and the 50-foot tall, animated Holiday Tree which features a music and light show. Since it was started in 2001, Holiday Lights has continued to grow and evolve with new elements and updates that bring families back year after year.
“It’s become a family tradition for many, many people,” said Garden Director Becca Ohman. “Families and friends come together to enjoy the show.”
The holiday lights attracts upwards of 85,000 people, making it one of the city’s most popular attractions. For the 2019 season, Garvan Gardens introduced a new ticket admission system with reserved time tickets to ease the flow of traffic on busy nights and maintain a high quality experience for guests.
The holiday lights display opens on the Saturday before Thanksgiving each year and is open daily through Dec. 31, except for Thanksgiving and Christmas when the Gardens are closed. The season kicks off with a tree lighting ceremony and includes other festivities including holiday concerts, the Jingle Dogs Pup Parade and Santa Nights when Santa Claus visits the Gardens to hear all the children’s holiday wishes.
Each year, thousands of onlookers line Central Avenue in downtown Hot Springs to watch the annual Hot Springs Christmas Parade, a local tradition dating back to 1939. Organized by the Oaklawn Rotary Club of Hot Springs, the hour-long event attracts 60-80 entrees each year including elaborate floats from local businesses and organizations, area high school marching bands, pageant winners, and many more.
The parade, which benefits Project Hope Food Bank, is led by a parade marshal with Santa Claus bringing up the rear. Parade marshals have included various community members: Hot Springs National Park Superintendent Laura Miller, Executive Director of the Garland County Historical Society Liz Robbins, and renowned local artists Gary Simmons and Richard Stephens.
Each year the parade features a different theme, such as “The Magic of Christmas” and “Christmas Vacation.” Participants are encouraged to carry out the theme to the best of their ability and their efforts are rewarded with trophies given for various categories: Best Decorated Float, Best Use of Theme, Best Use of Special Effects, Best Choreographed and Most Decorated Non-Float.
“We’ve encouraged people to up the ante every year,” said Oaklawn Rotary President Terry Edens who’s been a member of the club for 25 years. “We’ve noticed that the community really has risen to the challenge. We see more lights, more special effects, more floats that are broadcasting music.”
Edens attributes the success of the parade to both the Rotary Club and the community.
“Our club loves to serve the community and we’ve got it down to an art and a science,” she said. “We literally have a handbook on the parade, a very detailed one… The other part of the parade’s success, I think, is just the citizens and visitors of Hot Springs in that they support the parade unequivocally. No matter what we do, they’re going to turn out en masse to have a wonderful time with their families and friends.”
The 2019 parade will be held Monday, December 9 at 6:30 p.m. with the theme: “The Music of Christmas.” It will be led by Parade Marshal Rex Nelson, the senior editor and columnist for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. (In the event of rain, the parade will be held on the following day.)
To wrap up the holidays, enjoy some live music and dancing at one of our 21-and-up establishments. There will be New Year’s Eve parties taking place all over town – at various clubs, hotels and event venues. Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort will host its annual New Year’s Eve bash with live music in both Silks Bar and Grill and Pop's Lounge. Opened in 1904, Oaklawn is one of the city’s most historic venues – and a prime example of all big things happening in Hot Springs. Our holidays are bright, but 2020 will be even brighter.
For more information about upcoming events, visit the events calendar and get ready to start a new tradition of holidays in Hot Springs.
Leslie Fisher is a media professional with a passion for travel and adventure. She has Covered Hot Springs and the surrounding areas for over a decade and enjoys being a tourist in her hometown.