Festival of Lights: A Time-honored Tradition


Tim Alexander, Guest Writer


A Classic Peoria Area Holiday Tradition: Getting the Festival of Lights Parade Ready to Roll

EAST PEORIA – Though not blessed with as many citizen volunteers as in the past, the world-famous East Peoria Festival of Lights (FOL) Parade is ready to roll again on Saturday, November 18 at 6 pm. Following the parade, as per custom, the brightly-illuminated floats (over 500,000 holiday bulbs are used to festoon and light the objects) will be pulled to Fon Du Lac Park for their yearly residence within Folepi’s Winter Wonderland.

According to Kory Brown, who is now in his second year of chairing the event, there will be a few small changes to the festival this year, along with the return of an old favorite in a new locale. Before we get into those changes, though, let’s take a bit of a deep dive into the history of the East Peoria FOL:

FOL: a bright, colorful history

The original FOL parade was held in 1984, according to Brown, as a continuation of East Peoria’s centennial celebration. The winter parade, which included only a few floats, was supposed to be a one-time event. As with many one-off affairs, however, this one took hold and soon captured the enthusiasm and imagination of the public and business community.

“It started to pick up some speed and some more volunteers started showing up. All of a sudden they were starting to build floats with lights on them that could go down the road in the evening. From there it continued to snowball,” Brown recalled.

Ron Scott, former general manager of the Holiday Inn in East Peoria, is credited with having the original idea for the FOL Parade. He based the concept on a similar, successful promotion by the city of Niagara Falls, New York, where he had previously been employed. Scott saw the impact the parade and festival had on the otherwise-stagnant winter economy in Niagara Falls, and sought to replicate that success here in central Illinois.

Scott’s idea soon found the ear of past East Peoria Mayor Jim Ranney, who greenlighted the event after gaining approval from city representatives following a group trip to Niagara Falls. A business and public campaign soon began, with dozens of local businesses jumping on board by sponsoring floats. More importantly, citizen volunteers began contacting the East Peoria officials to inquire about assisting in the effort to make the parade a grand reality.

The first chairman of the FOL Parade, Maurice Joseph, stated in 1985: “Literally thousands of hours have already been contributed by volunteer labor. The continued support of those volunteers and new people who want to be involved makes this city the envy of other towns in the area.”

“Literally thousands of hours have already been contributed by volunteer labor. The continued support of those volunteers and new people who want to be involved makes this city the envy of other towns in the area.”

Maurice Joseph, First Chairman of the FOL Parade

The parade indeed caught the eye of other communities throughout the state, and, eventually, the governor’s office. East Peoria took top honors in the Governor’s Hometown Award Program for its 1987 FOL.

Though the number of citizen volunteers has dwindled over the years, the parade and festival’s popularity remains vibrant. The City of East Peoria, realizing the festival, parade and associated events are a boon to the local economy, continues to support the event through local tax dollars.

“It’s a revenue source for us to put money back into these floats,” said Brown. “People (or businesses) no longer sponsor the floats, but they sponsor the festival by purchasing advertisements in our FOLEPI (Festival of Lights, East Peoria, Illinois) guides that we publish every year, and other businesses support us. Some businesses donate to us to keep the parade going.

“Without our business community we wouldn’t be able to do it, that’s for sure. With the East Peoria Chamber of Commerce and all of the departments of the City of East Peoria, we all work together to make this thing go.”

Kory Brown, Director of Tourism and Special Events

A few changes for 2023

Brown said a few changes are in store for the parade and for Folepi’s Winter Wonderland this year. First, the parade will be bumped up to 6 pm on Saturday from its past starting time of 5:45 pm. As usual, it will begin on Dolans Lane and progress 1.5 miles to Springfield Road and Taylor Street near the post office. 39 floats will participate, and the Famous Clydesdales will be in the parade for the first time since 2019.

Folepi’s Winter Wonderland, the post-parade drive-through extravaganza of lighted floats, will open the evening after Thanksgiving 2023, rather than opening on the holiday itself. It will remain open nightly through January 1, beginning at 5 pm. “Theme Nights” will make their debut this year, in part to attempt to alleviate traffic issues sometimes associated with weekend visits, according to Brown.

“Mondays will be Chick fil-A nights, and starting Monday the 27th of November every car that comes through will receive a couple of coupons from Chick fil-A in Peoria. ‘Letter to Santa Tuesdays’ means Saint Nick will be there with his mailbox, and kids can hand their letters out the window to Santa (first four Tuesdays only) so he can take them to the North Pole. On Wednesdays, Elevate Trampoline Park will hand out valuable coupons as cars come by the booth,” said Brown.

The completion of East Peoria’s Levee Park Phase II project means the return of the Enchanted Garden, with an eyed opening date of December 1, weather depending. Its new location on a big, lighted stage in the Levee District will include a giant holiday tree and lighted arch for photo opportunities, as in years past.

The popular Nativity Scene will also be ready to go this year, after being unplugged due to electrical issues in 2022. In addition, WMBD will be live-streaming the parade for the first time to their social media and web outlets, allowing anyone in the world to tune in on ciproud.com.

Volunteers needed to keep parade afloat

The massive effort to bring the FOL and FOL Parade to life requires thousands of man-hours stretched out over the course of nearly a year. Lately, the effort to produce the events has been attended to by a dwindling crew of volunteers.

“We now have five to ten volunteers who help out year-round working on the floats and things like that,” said Brown. “As recently as 1999 there were as many as 700 volunteers, though not all working at once. On parade night we will have close to 100, with around 40 drivers for the floats, the walkers, and everyone else who helps out. It’s my job to get the word out that we need some new people to help out.”

In appealing for new volunteers to help keep the FOL and FOL Parade (ahem) afloat in the future, Brown offered several methods for people to reach out to him. Potential volunteers, including individuals and groups, can send an email to folepi@cityofeastpeoria.com or call the East Peoria City Hall. Brown can also be contacted through East Peoria’s East Side Center, where he works, during business hours.

“We’ll be looking to make that push for volunteers at the beginning of (2024) on social media and the FOL website,” Brown said, adding that those with electrical, welding, carpentry and other trades skills are especially needed.

Tim Alexander, Guest Writer
Tim Alexander, Guest Writer

Tim is a freelance writer and long-time Peoria resident. His passion for the Greater Peoria Area is evident through his volunteer work, photography, ag + news reporting, and hometown foodie recommendations! You may recognize Tim as a correspondent for WCBU and WGLT and as a reporter with the Chronicle Media Illinois.

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