Does anyone remember summer 2020? Because somehow, our novel coronavirus spring of masks and marching came and went and suddenly, we’re facing Labor Day, the bittersweet three-day weekend when we traditionally celebrate the last few moments of beach and barbecue while looking ahead to that magical pumpkin-spice time of year, when we’re all cookies and candies and anticipation of holiday delights.
Except it’s 2020, remember? Our through-the-looking-glass pandemic year when nothing is as it should be, nor will be, because in case you didn’t get the memo, most of the traditional holiday events and beloved light shows that enliven the last quarter of the year have already been canceled.
In other words, this is not the year to plan on a photo with Santa, unless he’s already part of your family bubble. And early indications are that traditional trick-or-treating will be a no-go for Halloween, along with a lot of other traditional scary events.
Universal Studios, Knott’s Berry Farm and the Queen Mary have been closed since March, and they all have canceled their popular haunted houses over COVID-19 concerns. Descanso Gardens has shelved plans to expand its “Carved Halloween” event, which last year featured about 1,000 exquisitely carved pumpkins and sold out every night. Sherman Library & Gardens in Corona del Mar is also canceling its Halloween event, which allows children to get close to spooky “creatures” such as wolves and birds of prey.
“We couldn’t see any way to host this event while practicing social distancing,” said Sherman Gardens spokeswoman Beverly Morgan.
Meanwhile, yuletide light events that have dominated our collective Instagram feeds with their luminescent nighttime beauty have also been canceled, including Descanso’s Enchanted Forest of Lights, the L.A. Arboretum’s Moonlight Forest Lantern Art Festival and Zoolights, the evening holiday tour of the L.A. Zoo. (Although the zoo itself has reopened by reservation only.)
The Pasadena Tournament of Roses has announced “with reluctance and tremendous disappointment” the cancellation of what would have been the 132nd Rose Parade (a first since World War II), and New York City’s Radio City Rockettes have canceled their Christmas Spectacular for the first time in 87 years.
Even Riverside’s Festival of Lights, which drew more than 750,000 visitors last year, is being dimmed for 2020. The Mission Inn will decorate extensively inside its hotel, for the enjoyment of its guests, but plans on only limited lighting outside, said spokeswoman Amanda Ruisi. Hotel security guards will ensure that only registered guests or restaurant patrons can come inside, to keep crowds at bay.
Last year, the historic block-wide hotel was festooned with about 5 million lights and 400 animated figures, drawing huge crowds of people who stood in Disneyland-long lines to tour part of the grounds. Those tours won’t be happening this year, Ruisi said, and the staging area at the inn’s main entrance will be closed to everyone except those who are valet parking.
The city, which partners with the hotel, has also shut down the other festival events, such as six blocks of vendors, carriage and hay rides and the day-after-Thanksgiving lighting ceremony, which usually features live entertainment, fireworks and a crowd of 75,000 tightly packed admirers.
“Historically, the city has spent $600,000 to $700,000 on the event, but due to COVID, we’re doing just a limited amount, about $60,000 worth of lights and decorations this year,” said Margie Haupt, the city’s arts and cultural affairs manager. “We’ll have some ornaments and holiday trees, and a few selfie stations, but nothing that will draw a crowd.”
Managing crowds, especially at night, is a big part of the challenge, said Arboretum Executive Director Richard Schulhof. “Right now, we’re operating at 50% capacity with expanded hours so we can spread people out,” he added. “As you know, we never closed during the pandemic, but if we’re not confident we could hold an event with complete safety, we’re not going to do it.”
It’s also not financially feasible. “The model for these events typically assumes a certain number of visitors to recoup costs and help support our mission,” Schulhof said, “and those numbers aren’t possible under pandemic conditions.”
But why all these announcements now? (As if the end of summer weren’t sad enough….)
Because this is typically when organizations start signing contracts to create these light-show extravaganzas, said Juliann Rook, executive director of Descanso Gardens. The gardens invest more than $1 million in events such as “Carved” and its “Enchanted Forest of Lights,” and the payoff is usually worth the investment, with events drawing huge numbers of visitors. Last year’s light festival drew more than 130,000 people over 44 days.
Descanso believes it could keep people safe during the festival, but there’s too much uncertainty about whether there’ll be another lockdown this winter prompted by another surge of the novel coronavirus.
“It just seemed a little too scary to commit financially when the world is so uncertain,” Rook said. “It’s just too much of a financial gamble.”
These events are huge money makers for the botanic gardens and L.A. Zoo, which makes the cancellations even more difficult. The zoo was closed all spring and could sorely use that extra revenue from its popular Zoolights event, which gives visitors a rare glimpse of the night life at the zoo, while walking through a sea of beautiful lights.
“We do have memberships, but those have been a real struggle to sell this year, since one of the main benefits of being a member is you get to visit the zoo whenever you want,” said Kait Hilliard, vice president of marketing and communications for the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Assn., the fundraising arm of the city-owned facility.
“I think this has been the challenge for every cultural institution in L.A. How do we keep our members engaged and happy when we can’t give them the experience for which they made their contribution?”
Other organizations are looking for ways to continue their holiday traditions in relative safety. Sherman Gardens intends to proceed with a pared-down version of its Nights of 1,000 Lights, minus visits with Santa but still offering tours of the gardens decorated with holiday lights.
Dana Point Harbor Partners is still planning to hold its 46th Boat Parade of Lights the first two weekends in December. “However, this is subject to change based on public health restrictions and recommendations at that time,” said spokeswoman Christine Barnes.
The harbor is usually awash in lights after Thanksgiving, but at this point, “Dana Point Harbor Partners will not host a lighting ceremony, as they do not want to encourage crowds,” Barnes said in an email. “However, they do plan to have the lights turn on earlier this year (closer to mid-November instead of late November) for Harbor guests and the community to enjoy. They hope this will spread the crowds out for people to enjoy in a safe environment.”
Dana Point’s popular by-donation boat rides with Santa will go as well, said Donna Kalez, managing partner of Dana Wharf Sportfishing & Whale Watching, but with several provisos. Kalez’s business typically takes out boatloads of children every Christmas for a quick ride around the harbor while they visit with Santa. The donations go to local charities.
“We’re just going to limit our capacity this year, and require reservations, and probably only do it for one day,” Kalez said. “And the kids won’t be able to sit on Santa’s lap. Santa always sits at the back of the boat, so we’ll just have to put up little stanchions to keep them 6 feet away. This year, they’ll be able to wave to Santa and get a little boat ride.”
Riverside city officials recognize that many families treat the Festival of Lights as an annual holiday tradition, Haupt said, so as a consolation prize, the city is trying to create a “Home for the Holidays” box that will feature merchandise typically sold during the event such as kettle corn, roasted nuts, special hot chocolate mixes and even a few toys.
The idea, Haupt said, is that people can order the boxes before Thanksgiving and open them in the safety of their homes, to try to re-create a little of the annual event.
They better include plenty of lights.