After almost a month of attending Christmas events, festivals, and other holiday themed location, we finally have stumbled upon arguably the most frugal and possibly the most memorable Christmas event to date! If you have followed Frugal Florida Fun, for a while then you know that being frugal doesn’t mean that you have to miss out on any of the fun and excitement! We discovered the Stephen Foster Festival of Lights last year and didn’t get a chance to check it out. This year we were sure to add it to our family calendar. We waited over a year to check it out, and we weren’t disappointed!
Just to give a bit of an idea of how badly we wanted to check out the Stephen Foster Festival of Lights, we drove over 3 hours and used an entire take of gas round trip! The transportation was the most expensive part of the evening, and of course will vary based on where you live. We also broke a few of our cardinal travelling rules, and didn’t pack a lunch or dinner, so we stopped twice to eat. It was nice though because we were able to explore a few little towns along the way.
Because we live so far away, we allotted ample time for travel and actually arrived very early. I’m glad we did because we also got a chance to checkout the rest of Stephen Foster State Park. When we arrived the gentleman at the gate was very helpful and was amazed we had travelled so far for the event. Admission was $3.00 per person which deviates from the parks regular admission charge of $5 per car load. We knew in advance to bring some cash with us, so it wasn’t such a big deal. The park almost seemed deserted, but based on the recommendation of the attendant, we started at the Stephen Foster Museum and then explored the rest of the complex.
Driving to the museum, you could certainly tell that Christmas was in the air, but we had no idea the grand scope of things. We saw a few signs where trees were sponsored by local businesses and organizations, but the grand scope of things wouldn’t be realized until night fall. When we were going into the museum, we were surprised that the layout and architecture of the building closely matched the Ribault Club that we had visited earlier in the year. Going into the museum, we didn’t fully understand the contributions that Stephen Foster had made, other than that the park was named after him.
Once inside the museum, we were dazzled by the museum exhibits. There were multiple dioramas and displays that centered around Stephen Foster’s musical compositions. I won’t ruin the surprises for you, but each display had something unique about it, from special lighting to moving parts, they were all quite impressive. Also in each of the rooms to either side were pianos and other musical instruments that were donated to the museum. They all look like they are in great working condition, but visitors are asked not to touch. I can only imagine how beautiful they must sound with the acoustics in each of the rooms.
Although we initially attended for the Stephen Foster Festival of Lights, we were glad to get a bit of culture as well. As we explored the sprawling state park, we arrived early enough to checkout the Carillon tower. This tower is a fully functional musical instrument built in the 1950’s! Located inside the tower is a complex network of tubular devices that once struck, sound very much like church bells. What’s even more amazing is that the system plays different music all the time! During the year the Carillon tower belts out songs that Stephen Foster composed, but during the Stephen Foster Festival of Lights, they play Christmas favourites! Housed in the bottom of the tower is another museum complete with a model of that the interior of this gigantic musical instrument looks like.
After we checked out the tower, we continued to explore, as the park magically started coming to life with Christmas lights! It was really awesome to see the lights turn on one by one, as most of the displays are on timers. As darkness fell, we were treated to all sorts of displays, trees, and lights that we didn’t even realize were there just awhile before. Now that it was getting darker, the Stephen Foster Festival of Lights started to get more and more visitors.
In addition to the numerous light displays, there were all sorts of holiday themed activities for the little ones! You can take a few minutes to tell Santa what you would like for Christmas and to take a few pictures with the big guy himself! On the back of the stage take a few minutes and hang out to watch an assortment of Christmas themed movies. Throughout the evening, it’s also been known to snow right in front of Santa’s stage. (Ok so it’s not real snow, but it’s the closest we can get here in Florida).
Located inside the auditorium, there is a great model rail road display hosted by the Lake City model rail road club. You should have seen the kids light up when they watched all the trains going around. The display is at perfect eye level, so the kids can enjoy it. The volunteers from the model railroad club were awesome! I had a GoPro camera with me that we were going to put on one of the trains, but the battery went dead. It would have made for some awesome video. The volunteers also let the kids control the trains which was a nice touch.
Across the way at the Stephen Foster Festival of Lights, you won’t want to miss Gingerbread Village! Throughout the year this little village hosts local artisans featuring pottery, textile arts, and even a blacksmith! During the holiday season not only is it decked out with holiday cheer, but they also feature local craftsman selling everything from Christmas ornaments to wool knit caps. The gift shop also has all sorts of crafts that are sold on a consignment basis.
Once inside Gingerbread Village, we discovered that many of the refreshments were complimentary. This is usually where events tend to rack up costs. Kids usually want drinks and snacks, which can really add up quickly. Not at the Stephen Foster Festival of Lights! The hot cocoa, popcorn, toasted marshmallows and smores are all complimentary! Each location accepts donations, although it’s not required. Grab a marshmallow and roast it yourself at the bonfire! If you would like to have a meal there though, there is a concession stand that has additional options which you can purchase.
Something that really stands out is the manpower that is required to pull off an annual event like the Stephen Foster Festival of Lights. We ran into the blacksmith that really went out of his way to include our little guy in the festivities as well as a strolling violin player that really got us into the Christmas spirit. I must say, that there was an army of volunteers and staff members that really helped contribute to the success of this event. Everyone seemed genuinely happy to be there and to share the Christmas spirit.
On the way out of the Stephen Foster Festival of Lights, you can drive through the entire complex checking out the immersive light displays all around the park. With over 5 million lights, there was plenty to do and see! The long drive was certainly worth it, but remember this is a fully functional state park, complete with camping options. I think that next year we may just make a weekend out of it and do some camping as well!
Stephen Foster Festival of Lights Details:
Address: 11016 Lillian Saunders Dr., White Springs, Fl 32096
Dates: December 4th 2015 through December 31st 2015 Closed Christmas Night – Drive Through Only Christmas Eve
Hours: Sunset to 9pm (For Festival of Lights) Park Open During Day as well.
Costs: $3.00 per person over 3 years old. This replaces the standard Florida State Parks Admission Rate.