This year’s Holiday Lights Festival might feel a little different than winters past, but despite a few changes, the event is still keeping the same seasonal charm.
The festival, set to kick off with the Thanksgiving Lighting Ceremony on Nov. 24, has a new presenting sponsor, a new location for the popular ice skating rink and a few new voices singing holiday tunes.
Blue Cross Blue Shield of Nebraska has taken over sponsorship from Conagra Brands, the festival’s presenting sponsor since 2002. The insurer has committed to sponsoring the festival, which is produced by the Mayor’s Office and the Downtown Omaha Inc. Foundation, for the next three years.
“We’re delighted to participate in this event,” said Pat Bourne, a senior vice president at Blue Cross, in a press conference Thursday.
Although Conagra moved its headquarters from Omaha to Chicago this year, it will still be involved in the festival. Conagra is continuing to sponsor the Shine the Light on Hunger food drive. Last year, the drive raised about $445,000 for the Food Bank for the Heartland, the equivalent of more than 1.4 million meals, supplying the bank for about a month. A goal of 1.4 million meals has been set for this year.
And Conagra will continue to sponsor the ice skating rink, matching proceeds dollar for dollar up to $100,000.
This year, the rink is relocating from the Conagra campus to a temporary new home just east of 10th Street between Dodge Street and Capitol Avenue. It will move again in December 2017, this time to its permanent new location in the Capitol District, right across the street.
“It is still a very accessible place for Omahans and visitors to the rink, but it’s literally right across the street from its new home,” said Chris Kircher, president of the Conagra Foods Foundation. “We thought this was a good way to kind of transition it and get people to get used to the fact that there is going to be a rink in that area going forward.”
This year’s holiday lights display will feature 40 blocks of white lights, totaling more than 1 million bulbs. The five-week display of romantic white lighting will begin on Thanksgiving evening, with a free concert to follow at the Holland Performing Arts Center.
New to this year’s lighting ceremony is live music before the lights go live. Mother-daughter duo Belles Whistles will perform at 5:30 p.m. Nov. 24 before Mayor Jean Stothert leads a countdown for the lighting display at 6 p.m.
Last year’s lighting ceremony was pushed back two days because of weather. Stothert has her fingers crossed that won’t happen again.
“This festival will begin on Thanksgiving, if Mother Nature allows, not like last year,” Stothert said, “but that’s Nebraska weather for you.”
For the sixth year, lighting ceremonies will be held in north Omaha, near 24th and Lake streets, and in South Omaha, on 24th Street between N and O Streets. Those lighting ceremonies will be held on Dec. 3 at 5 p.m. and 5:30 p.m., respectively.
2016 Holiday Lights Festival
” Thanksgiving Lighting Ceremony
Mayor Jean Stothert will flip the switch, illuminating more than 1 million lights in the Gene Leahy Mall and the surrounding area. The ceremony runs from 6 to 7 p.m. on Thanksgiving, Nov. 24, at the Gene Leahy Mall. Immediately after, at 7 p.m., the Holland Performing Arts Center will host the annual Making Spirits Bright concert, a performance by vocalist Drew Duncan and the Nebraska Wind Symphony.
Choral groups and musicians will perform in the Gene Leahy Mall and Old Market on Saturday evenings from Nov. 26 through Dec. 17, 7 to 8 p.m.
” Wells Fargo Family Festival
From noon to 5 p.m. on Dec. 4, several locations near downtown Omaha will offer free admission and family activities. Locations include Wells Fargo Bank, the Omaha Children’s Museum, the Durham Museum, the Joslyn Art Museum, the W. Dale Clark Library and the Omaha Police Department Mounted Patrol Barn. Ollie the Trolley will transport attendees between sites.
” Conagra Brands Ice Rink
The ice rink will move to its temporary new location east of 10th Street between Dodge Street and Capitol Avenue. It will open at 6 p.m. on Dec. 9 and will run through Jan. 2. It will be open from 1 to 10 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays, 1 p.m. to midnight on Fridays and Saturdays, and 1 to 5 p.m. on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve. It will be closed on Christmas and New Year’s Day. Admission is $5 and includes a skate rental.
The Blade Edge Figure Skating Club will perform at the rink for 30 minutes on Dec. 17 at 3 p.m. in an event dubbed “Skating Extravaganza.”
” New Year’s Eve Fireworks
The public display begins at 7 p.m. on Dec. 31 in the Gene Leahy Mall. An accompanying soundtrack of classic rock will be broadcast on 104.5 FM.