Promoters of downtown this winter plan to turn the city’s core from holiday dead zone into Waco’s holiday central.
Several groups are collaborating to create a “Waco Wonderland” in the week after Thanksgiving, offering light displays, music, fireworks, a parade, Santa Claus and an ice skating rink.
The event will serve up activities daily from Nov. 30 to Dec. 7, based around Heritage Square and extending up Austin Avenue to Eighth Street. Other attractions will include bounce houses, arts and crafts activities, vendor booths and sales at downtown businesses.
“We’re hoping it will become a tradition,” said Lisa Sheldon, an organizer of the project and board member of the downtown Public Improvement District, an event co-sponsor. “People are going to say, ‘You have to come and be here.’ I think we’ll make a statement this year.”
The PID, which levies a surtax on downtown properties, is working with the Downtown Development Corporation and the city of Waco to put on the event. The cost of the $97,000 event will be split among the city, the PID and private funds raised by the DDC.
The celebration will kick off the evening of Nov. 30 with a tree-lighting ceremony and a fireworks display.
The pyrotechnic company Atlas Enterprises is putting on the show at no charge to make amends for a July 4 show that fizzled because of technical problems.
The catalyst for this year’s holiday celebration was disappointment about last year’s lack of celebration, organizers said. Historic Waco Foundation canceled its annual Christmas parade, a year after the 2011 parade was rained out.
“The interesting thing is that everybody cared that the parade wasn’t able to happen, and there was a community conversation,” DDC executive director Megan Henderson said. “People agreed that it matters that we have a Christmas parade.”
The PID board agreed to take responsibility to make sure the parade continues each year. This year, it will be organized by Mighty Wind Worship Center and is scheduled for daytime on Dec. 7.
Though church-sponsored, the parade is open to anyone who wants to participate and won’t be limited to religious themes.
In a work session Tuesday on the Waco Wonderland, Waco City Council members voiced enthusiasm for the event and lamented the lack of festivities last year.
Councilwoman Toni Herbert said council members were “almost mortally embarrassed” at a tree-lighting ceremony at Heritage Square last year.
“There’s just this lonely tree and this big handle you pulled,” she said. “There were no kids singing, nothing but a few intrepid souls. It was embarrassing.”
Henderson said there are no other communitywide Christmas celebrations in Waco, and downtown is the logical place for one.
“We’re having this downtown, because it’s the heart of the community,” Henderson said. “It’s what makes Waco Waco. It’s back to the future, forward into the past. We are reconnecting with the urban center as a place to do special things.”
The ice rink at Heritage Square will be the marquee event. With a $5 ticket, anyone can rent skates and spend 45 minutes on the artificial ice, which is as slick as the real stuff and often used for hockey teams.
Seventy-five skaters will be allowed on the “ice” at one time.
City of Waco parks and recreation spokesman Jonathan Cook said he expects about 5,000 people for the opening day, which includes the 8 p.m. fireworks display.
Cook said Atlas Enterprises already has refunded the $15,000 the city paid for the July 4 fireworks show, but the company is planning an impressive show to make up for this summer’s disappointing display.
“They want to come back to Waco and really show what their company is all about,” Cook said. “They are super- excited about it. They want to be able to work with us again.”