LARGO — If your holiday season is all hustle and bustle and no relaxation, there is a surefire way to unwind and enjoy the moment. Take a stroll. Not through the mall, but along the winding sidewalks of Largo Central Park. Arrive after dark and watch the world sparkle.
Now through Jan. 3, the 70-acre park is lit up every night with more than a million LED lights. Flamingos, ducks, teddy bears and polar bears shine. Candy canes and gingerbread houses create smiles on the faces of children and adults alike. Children can slide, swing and have fun on the playground surrounded by an illuminated wonderland.
"We have five entrances to the park and a people counter at one," said Largo parks superintendent Greg Brown. "Last year, that people counter in December counted 90,000 people, so we estimate well over 200,000 people have visited the park."
Palms dressed in red and green lights illuminate the area by the playground. Listen to the holiday tunes. Gaze up at oaks encircled in delicate lights. Look down at the sidewalks that every so often twinkle with color, like the reflection of stars. And walk through rows of crape myrtles and other trees that turn into an enchanted forest with their trunks wrapped in red and green lights.
Then step into the Military Court of Honor, with its subtle glow of red, white and blue lights. Peer off toward the fountain in the lake as it changes colors and the luminarias around the lake create a warm glow.
The stunning visual effect can be seen from cars passing on Seminole Boulevard and East Bay Drive, but for a real experience, turn onto Central Park Drive. Illuminated merry-go-rounds and snowmen welcome visitors, and cars pass underneath branches of stately oaks with light trickling down their branches.
Sandra Kelley of Largo has been coming to the park for 10 years.
"The city's done a beautiful job," said Kelley, 69. "I say bring all the kids out. We've seen some wide-eyed ones tonight. One almost ran into us he was so caught up in looking at the lights."
Sit for a few minutes at one of the picnic tables under Shelter 1 and look out over the park. Take a deep breath. Smell the aroma of a wood-burning fire. No, it's not a fireplace; it's a fire ring. Boy Scout Troop 135 sets up under Shelter 8 at the other end of the park, selling hot chocolate, soft drinks, popcorn and snacks during the week and adding hot dogs and hamburgers to the menu on the weekend.
Yet the big draw every night is that woodsy smell. The troop also sells s'mores kits. Purchase one, then walk nearby to the fire ring. Choose a stick from the bucket and enjoy making and eating the warm treat.
"Selling the snacks and s'mores is Troop 135's fundraiser for summer camp," said troop treasurer Garrett Grimes. "This year, they're raising money to attend Montana High Adventure Base. We go through lots of hot chocolate and we sell s'mores every night. One hundred percent of the money raised goes to the Boy Scouts."
The Scouts' s'mores kits are quite popular, according to Brown, whose son is a member of Troop 135. The troop built the fire ring two years ago as Kyle Grimes' Eagle Scout project.
Brown said city workers, along with jail inmates and an inmate foreman, put up the lights, though a contractor does the designs.
"Five years ago, we invested heavily in LEDs," Brown said. "We were getting to the point where the park's power couldn't support it, but the LEDs use much less power, so we were able to expand. The cost to set everything up and the staff hours it takes is around $92,000.''
According to Brown, the power bill for the whole show runs about $3,500.
"The sheer number of lights in the park makes Holiday Lights in Central Park unique," he said. "And the s'mores.
"We get the most comments about what I call the drip lights, that sort of look like light sabers on Central Park Drive," he said. "They turn Central Park Drive into a light show, with the light dripping down out of the trees as you're driving through. We also have sections with lasers where the purple, green or red lights show up on you and the sidewalk."
The lights took close to a month to put up, with work starting Oct. 27, right after Spooktacular, and being completed three days before Thanksgiving and the Holiday Stroll.
In addition to the other activities, on Friday night a free movie, Elf, will be shown on an inflatable 20-foot screen. Bring chairs and blankets for the showing, which begins at dusk. Themed children's activities will take place before the movie. The entire event runs 5 to 9 p.m.
"There's a lot to do and see here, but Largo's known for its Holiday Lights and the trains. Whenever I mention Largo Central Park to someone outside the area, people talk about either the trains or our Holiday Lights," Brown said. "This month is special — it's the only month where they both happen together."