GULFPORT -- City leaders and organizers met at Jones Park on Thursday evening to offer a preview of the new Harbor Lights Winter Festival, the largest electronic lights show and Christmas display of its kind in the southeastern United States.
The person who kicked off Thursday's preview was Evan Heidingsfelder of Long Beach. The 7-year-old was selected by the Make-a-Wish Foundation to flip the switch that would illuminate the displays.
With a twist of Evan's wrist, nearly 60 acres of holiday-themed lighting came to life in a variety of shapes and sizes, including Christmas trees taller than most buildings. The lights were synchronized to Christmas music pumping out of large speakers designed to look like wrapped gifts.
Evan, who has battled leukemia since he was 2, made a wish to ride a steam train through the snow. The Make-a-Wish Foundation granted his request in 2013, flying him to Colorado to do exactly that.
After three years of chemotherapy, the happy-go-lucky kid made a breakthrough, and his leukemia has been in remission.
"Make-a-Wish keeps asking him to do fun stuff like this," his mother, Mary Heidingsfelder, said. "They've been very good to him. I'm just grateful he's doing so well."
Gulfport's mayor and City Council are banking on the idea that the festival of lights will extend the tourism season into winter. Island View Casino Resort is the main sponsor of the display, which will open Nov. 27 and welcome visitors Thursdays through Sundays through Jan. 3.
"We said, 'Is it possible to bring Christmas back to downtown?'" Mayor Billy Hewes said. "(Councilman) Rusty Walker started talking about it and speaking to the Island View."
Hewes said they wanted to do something similar to -- but better than -- New Orleans' Celebration in the Oaks and Mobile's Magic Christmas in Lights.
In addition to the colorfully lit displays, Harbor Lights Winter Festival will feature a Ferris wheel that will give riders a bird's-eye view of the city, a horse-drawn carriage that holds nine people, an express train that will encircle the park, a carousel and Santa's Craft Workshop. The Ship Island Ferry will serve hot cocoa and other refreshments.
The project will cost about $1.4 million this year. Island View is putting up $500,000 each year for the next five years. The city hopes revenue from admissions and refreshments will cover the rest.
Visitors will pay $5 per person or $20 per vehicle -- $40 for vans and $100 for charter buses -- to enter the winter wonderland.
"It should be a fantastic experience for people," the mayor said.