BATESVILLE Johnathan Abbott looks at the million or so lights at Riverside Park each holiday season and sees the stories behind the displays. They honor loved ones, feature a number of local businesses and, quite literally, put a spotlight on community pride.
The displays will light up the park the night before Thanksgiving and will remain on each night through Jan. 1.
This will be the third year the lights will go on the Wednesday night before Thanksgiving. Abbott, city of Batesville cemetery/landscaping supervisor, said they used to light the park the same night as the downtown Christmas parade, usually the first Monday night in December, but a lot of people said they had family come in from out of town for Thanksgiving and asked that the lights be turned on sooner.
“We had a lot of feedback with that,” he said, so he and Mayor Rick Elumbaugh talked about it and decided to have the lights go on Thanksgiving week.
Carriages operated by a local company, Stone Castle Carriages, owned by John and Patti Hodge, will run from 6-9 p.m. Monday through Thursday and from 6-10 p.m. (depending on the crowd) Friday through Sunday.
The train will follow the same hours again this year.
The prices will also be the same as last year: $5 per person for the train and $7 per person for carriage rides, with children ages 2 and under riding both for free.
Neither will run during inclement weather, such as rain, snow or sleet, or extremely cold temperatures. Abbott recommends dressing warmly because both the carriages and the train are open-air, and the train does not have blankets, but riders are welcome to bring their own.
While the cemetery/landscape department handles the lights and displays, the city’s park and recreation department will again operate the synthetic ice-skating rink in the gazebo, starting Nov. 29 and running through Dec. 31. The rink may be closed during inclement weather. The fee for ice skating is $5 per person, and hours are from 6-9 p.m. Monday through Thursday; from 6-11 p.m. Fridays; from 1-11 p.m. Saturdays; and from 1-6 p.m. Sundays.
Private parties can be booked for one-hour sessions for $125 and may be arranged by calling (870) 698-2427 or visiting www.batesvilleparks.com.
More information can be found on the White River Wonderland Facebook page.
The city uses traffic counters to keep up with the number of visitors from opening night to Jan. 1, which is the last night for the lights, and Abbott said the city recorded approximately 43,700 vehicles entering the park last year.
He reminds local residents that if they don’t wish to go through the displays, they might go around to Pioneer Drive to get to the high school, as traffic is one-way through the light display.
“It’s a good problem to have when you’ve got traffic backed up to the bridge,” he said. “The other direction, we had it almost backed up to Lawrence Street,” with city employees and police officers helping direct vehicles in some cases.
Abbott hasn’t counted the actual number of lights this year, but last year, the park had around 1.5 million. He estimates between 1.5 and 2 million lights this year.
“We add to it every year,” he said.
New this year will be Santa’s Workshop, with elves on workbenches, a toy factory and a happy camper scene, to name a few.
He said the city also purchased an additional 250 individual tubes of cascading lights that hang in the trees, and those are always a big hit with visitors.
“We try to add to that every year — everybody loves them,” Abbott said.
As for the freestanding decorations, he said his favorites are the ones with stories behind them. Some out-
of-towners may look at the White River Monster and not know the story behind this piece of folklore, with the monster supposedly spotted in the river near Newport in the 1910s.
“They look at it and say, ‘What is that?’” Abbott said, chuckling.
He also gets a few St. Louis Cardinals fans who are almost indignant at a Chicago Cubs baseball championship sign in the park, but then he explains about the mother whose son died in 2012. The family was originally from Chicago, and the son was a Cubby through and through.
Another display honors two Batesville teenagers who died in a car accident, with Santa and Rudolph bearing the 15-year-olds’ football-jersey numbers and tossing a football between them.
A local businessman whose grandson has autism donated an autism-awareness blue puzzle-piece display.
“When the opportunity comes up and people ask, we tell the story,” Abbott said. “The baseball is always a point of contention, so I get to tell that story a lot!”
Abbott said the Batesville High School agriculture department will contribute a handmade 8-foot-tall lighted Pioneer Joe mascot this year — the mascot will carry a candy cane instead of a gun — so Abbott is excited to see that in the park lit up, he said.
“They’ve done a good job,” Abbott said. “It will be a wonderful representation of our Batesville School District.”
Abbott said the city cemetery/landscaping department does not typically hire additional staff for the season. With a full-time staff of eight, plus one part-time person, as well as Abbott and Mindy Estrada, the cemetery and landscaping assistant, they already stay pretty busy.
“Our job does not stop just because we do Christmas lights. We still have storms come through, and we have to do tree work. We still have cemetery maintenance we have to do, opening and closing of graves, and stoplight issues where we have to pull bucket trucks off lights to work on stoplights. … We also do the maintenance here at City Hall,” he said.
“Last year, we had a computer malfunction, and it took me like two hours to get them up and going,” Abbott said with a laugh. “I was a little bit stressed!”
He joked that his wife, Dede, is “accustomed to me being gone during the holiday season. I spend a lot of time down there.”
He said someone asked him recently, “Do you get to enjoy the lights?” and his response was, “I get to enjoy watching people enjoying the lights. Most of my time is spent making sure everything is running and going right.”
But he does make time to talk to some of the visitors and ask them where they’re from.
Estrada said they’ve had people come from Hardy, Jonesboro and other towns across Arkansas and around Memphis, as well from as other states, such as Missouri and Texas, even some visitors from Florida.
“It’s become a tradition now,” Abbott said.
He said some families make several trips during the season. He recalled one family whose daughter has autism and at first was very reserved and wouldn’t speak to him, but they make nightly passes through the park.
“And now, I get a fist bump every once in a while,” he said, and that makes it worthwhile.
He said the city added its own custom-built “train” last year, and 100 percent of the proceeds from train rides go back into the light fund, which will include additional staffing for the department.
“Last year, our people shuffled schedules around and extended schedules to cover all of it, so this year, my hopes are to have two different crews, one to work during the day to repair things and a crew at night to sell tickets and operate the train, conduct traffic control, take up donations, all of that. It’s just about a round-
the-clock job to run it,” he said.
He said there was some concern last year about whether the train rides would hurt the carriage rides, but “we had two- and three-hour waits for both.”
Estrada said the city sold 5,000 tickets for the train alone, with the carriages running nonstop, as well, during those peak times.
This year, Abbott said, the city will add a few games for people to play while they wait for rides.
“There are some more games we want to purchase, but it will take money and time,” he said.
And, he said, there are even more things he’d like to add “eventually.”
“I don’t know if it will ever happen in my tenure, but I’d like to see a Santa’s workshop, where they can come sit on Santa’s lap, and have a little village made of lights like you see at Silver Dollar City and different activities going on,” said Abbott, who has 30 years with the city of Batesville.
But everything is centered around the lights, he said, and keeping admission to see the lights free of charge.
Abbott said the city does have a donation station.
“It’s not to make money for the city. That is to grow our light display, to make it bigger, to make it more fun for the families. I encourage people to help us if they can with that. One hundred percent goes back into the lights. The city takes none of that for the city’s general [budget].”
He also said the staff appreciates everyone who comes out and supports the White River Wonderland.
“It couldn’t happen without Independence County. Hats off to them and to the businesses who contribute every year, and hats off to the landscape crew. It definitely wouldn’t happen without them. They work very long, very hard hours to get it done. We were working in the rain and the cold to get it done,” he said, joking that he’s been accused a time or two of some high-handedness.
But, he said, the job has to get done.
“I feel like the Clark Griswold of Batesville,” Abbott said.