Though the event got its unofficial start over three decades ago, the popularity of the holiday lights at McCormick-Stillman Railroad Park has exploded in recent years – leading to long lines and over $300,000 in ticket sales in 2018.
Staff began putting up lights during the holiday season in the early 1980s.
“The holiday lights started as not necessarily an official event,” said Nick Molinari, City of Scottsdale’s operations supervisor for the park. “It was really just park staff who decided to start decorating the train loop and over the course of time it started to grow and people looked forward to riding at night.”
Molinari said the popularity of the holiday lights really began to take off in the past decade or so.
“We’ve seen a gradual ramp up in popularity over the years,” he said. “The past 10 years is where the event has really started to grow and take shape.”
Molinari estimated that 1,000 people visit at McCormick-Stillman Railroad Park on a slow night during the holiday lights and as many as 3,000 to 4,000 people come through on busier evenings during the five-week program.
Those visitors accounted for 49,000 rides on the park’s train and $313,000 in sales, according to ticket sale numbers tracked by the park.
The park expanded the holiday lights from three to five weeks in 2018 in an attempt to alleviate long lines that had some visitors waiting up to three hours to ride the train in previous years.
“We wanted to maximize that effort it takes to put it up,” Molinari said of the decision to expand to five weeks. “It has worked very well. We have a little window where it is absolutely crazy, but we have succeeded in evening (the congestion) out.”
“Our goal was to create more nights and even out attendance so it wasn’t inaccessible for some people.”
Visitors who did not want to wait in the lines could also opt to purchase $15 fast pass tickets that allow them to jump ahead of the $5 ticket purchasers.
The park’s holiday lights program generated $313,048 in ticket sales in 2018, including $105,725 from the sale of 7,119 fast pass tickets.
That total is a $32,343 increase over ticket sales in 2017.
Prior to 2017, the city did not sell dedicated tickets for the train during the light show, so visitors could use standard $2 train tickets.
The city created the fast pass program to reduce wait times and increased ticket prices to offset the additional staffing, operations and other costs. The exact costs are difficult to nail down, but Molinari said they are significant.
“Costs are also extremely difficult to calculate, as a great deal of the work to put on the event happens throughout the year,” he said.
The park’s maintenance team works on the exhibits in the summer and into the fall and the city later contracts with an outside lighting company to hang lights on trees and buildings.
Molinari said he does not specifically track the hours maintenance staff spends working on the holiday lights exhibits.
The city also uses off-duty Scottsdale Police officers to handle traffic and security. Molinari said those costs can vary.
He said the city pays approximately $60,000 to the lighting contractor and also spends $10,000 to $12,000 on advertising and social media to promote the event.
The park also has rent equipment like aerial lifts to aid in the setup.
“Then pretty much our entire staff, along with staff from other program areas within the City of Scottsdale, assists us with the other event setup, which takes about a month,” Molinari said.
He said the park has experienced increased costs to pay part-time staff that operates the train and carousel due to the statewide increase in the minimum wage.
Molinari said the park does realize some cost savings by redeploying full-time park staff and other full-time city staff to prepare for the event.
Even with the recent ticket price increases, Molinari said that the prices are still accessible for families when compared against the costs for similar attractions in the market.
“Due to efficiencies with full-time staff, we’re able to keep the event affordable,” he said.