Nights of Lights organizers betting on a 'very busy' holiday season for St. Augustine

Colleen Michele Jones
St. Augustine Record
Downtown St. Augustine lights up the night sky during the annual Nights of Lights.

Nights of Lights is what the Kentucky Derby is to Louisville, Kentucky, or Halloween is to Salem, Massachusetts.

And while COVID-19 did not take all the wind out of the sails of last year's celebration of luminaries, the City of St. Augustine is geared up to take it to next level for the 2021 installment of the holiday tradition, which has also become one of the biggest money-makers for local tourism.

This season's Nights of Lights kicks off Nov. 20 and runs through Jan. 31. 

The start of the event was moved up in 2020 by two weeks to try to make up for economic losses caused by the pandemic, but this year the official "Light-Up! Night" will return to its schedule of the Saturday before Thanksgiving.

The spectacle, which illuminates the city's skyline of European-inspired architecture with a panorama of millions of twinkling white lights, has been listed among the top 10 holiday light displays in the world by National Geographic.

Going into its 28th year, the signature event draws tens of thousands of people to the Ancient City, bringing them into the shops, restaurants and hotels in what historically had been a time of darkness, not light, for business activity in St. Augustine.

Richard Goldman, president and CEO of the St. Augustine, Ponte Vedra & The Beaches Visitors and Convention Bureau, said tourism in general this year is up nearly 20% over 2019 (which tourism industry officials consider a baselines since 2020 was such an anomaly). And he expects that demand to increase into the holiday season.

"People, families, have their traditions with this event here," Goldman said. "And I think, not unlike last year, folks are looking for a reason to celebrate, and this is a real destination."

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Due to safety protocols related to the pandemic last year, city-run shuttles which have historically provided free transportation service to downtown from satellite parking lots across the area, did not run. 

This season, however, they are back, according to Melissa Wissel, a spokeswoman for the City of St. Augustine.

Shuttles will be offered on on Light Up! Night, Thanksgiving weekend, Saturdays in December and the week between Christmas and New Year's Eve. Specifics on parking locations and times will be released by the city soon.

Whether spectators choose to walk it, drive it, or even view it by boat from the waterfront, there are options for taking in the sights of the 20-block district of stores, restaurants, hotels and homes draped by light.

Old Town Trolley has run Nights of Lights tours departing nightly from the Visitor Information Center for many years, and general manager Dave Chatterton said excitement for this year is already evident with advanced sales of tickets up 15% over 2020.

Last fall, the company went to a reservation-only system and sold tickets in blocks of four-row seats (customers can still reserve less than four tickets but they must buy the row as a whole) and put into place social distancing for waiting lines and boarding, as well as plexiglass dividers between rows (as of now, that is not required, Chatterton said).

Chatterton said Old Town Trolley is going to continue that policy beginning this November. 

So far, Chatterton said, "There's a tremendous amount of demand we're hearing about and seeing on social media, so we're preparing for a very busy season."

Tours for Nights of Lights are also offered on the Santa’s Red Express trains that take off from the Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Museum.

Chatterton said Old Town Trolley is going to resume its traditional cookies and cider for nightly holiday tours which it discontinued last year due to COVID-19. And it will offer regular live entertainment at its headquarters with local student bands and other community arts and cultural offerings to make the spirit bright.