WASHINGTON – Escalating costs have forced organizers of the Prince George’s County Winter Festival of Lights to charge an entrance fee for the first time this year, and coordinators fear that local food pantries will suffer because of it.
For the first 14 years of the festival, entrance was free with a donation of canned food for area food banks. Last year, the festival collected 864 cases of food.
But operating the festival is expensive, and the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission this year decided to charge an entrance fee of $10 to $40, depending on the size of the vehicle.
“A few people have turned around because they are taken by surprise” by the new fee, said Kathy Garrity, Prince George’s County specialist for the park commission.
The commission has waived admission on Monday nights in an effort to spur visits, but on the first Monday this season, workers said there were fewer cars than last year.
“In the beginning, it started as a gift to Prince George’s County,” said Rick Paquin, who has been the head electrician for the festival since it opened. “Now with everything that has happened, I think it (entrance fee) is going to hurt us all the way around.”
Paquin said the Winter Festival of Lights has evolved from a small trail of 25,000 lights and a 25-foot Christmas tree, when he started, to a 2.5-mile course with 65 displays, more than a half-million lights and a 56-foot tree.
Electricians begin building the displays at the beginning of the year, and start setting them up in Watkins Regional Park in early October.
Despite the early dip in visitors, festival operators still hold hope that the decline is a result of unseasonably warm weather and an early Thanksgiving, not the new fees.
“People aren’t quite in the holiday season yet,” said Anita Pesses, a spokeswoman at the Prince George’s County Department of Parks and Recreation, which sponsors the festival. “People get more in the holiday spirit when it’s cool out.”