Bright Starry Nights

Annual ‘festival of light’ show brings crowds to Shelby Farms

By Andy Meek

It’s been in the works for an entire year. More than 130,000 visitors are expected to drive through the Starry Nights holiday light show at Shelby Farms Park this year. And when they do, they’ll see the handiwork of volunteers who have been building dozens of set pieces starting as early as February.

Visitors drive through Starry Nights at Shelby Farms Park, which features more than 2.5 million lights. The exhibit runs through December and is closed every Monday to cars for Run, Walk, Ride nights.

(Daily News File Photo: Lance Murphey)

They’ll also see a lot more – a veritable Christmas present to park supporters and Memphians at large.

Starry Nights, which is comprised of more than 2.5 million lights, is a Memphis tradition and one of several unique ways local nonprofits spread Christmas cheer as the year winds down.

On any given night except Mondays – when Starry nights is closed to car traffic – visitors will see a long line of cars inch their way through the park. The brake lights add their own strand of illumination to the festival, but this year it’s even more of an experience and not just a drive-thru display.

A partnership with Sharp Manufacturing, for example, resulted in an innovative solar-powered light display. And an outdoor component of the show that got started last year is back and even bigger this time around.

It’s called Mistletoe Village, and depending on where a visitor looks, they might see kids and adults riding camels. Elsewhere, kids scamper across a makeshift village green as “snow” bursts from a machine and drifts through the air, swirling around shops where people browse artisan crafts.

Around a crackling fire, parents and children roast s’mores. Underneath a tent, kids step over each other to feed animals that are in turn stepping over each other to be fed.

And of course, there’s an opportunity to have a photo taken with the big man in the red suit.

“The traditional Starry Nights was a drive-thru light show,” said Natalie Wilson, events coordinator for the Shelby Farms Conservancy. “But this year, Starry Nights is an experience. It’s a festival of light, and it invites people to get out of their cars and experience something new.”

Starry Nights, to be sure, also is the largest fundraiser for the operation of the park. That operation, Wilson said, requires $7,000 a day – not hard to imagine, when considering that Shelby Farms covers an area that’s five times larger than Central Park in New York City.

“For a small staff of the conversancy, it is a monumental task for us to make happen, and it takes us an entire year to do that,” Wilson said. “We started in February, working with Tennessee Technology Center and the students in their welding department, to build the new displays that Haizlip Studio created for us to build. They design our show. They are the brains behind our design element, and Tennessee Technology students build the displays.”

Shelby Farms’ still relatively new Woodland Discovery Playground for children was built last year. After it was built, it wasn’t long before plans were being made to fold it somehow into Starry Nights – because it’s pretty much in the middle of the show. And that’s what turned into the Mistletoe Village.

A gate attendant last weekend was noticeably excited when asked about the village area.

“Yeah, Mistletoe Village! They’ve got Santa there. And reindeer!” he exclaimed.

Later this month, runners will be racing at the park partly to help raise money to keep the park and greenline “clean, green and safe.” Four years on from its return to Memphis after a long hiatus, a race is being held amid the season of Starry Nights and in a way is celebrating that four-year anniversary.

The entrance fee for the Starry 4K Fun Run includes a long-sleeved T-shirt that glows in the dark. That race will be held Dec. 15 starting at the Shelby Farms Park Visitor Center.

After runners cross the snowy finish line, they’ll be rewarded with complimentary hot chocolate.

The Daily News is a supporter of Shelby Farms Park.