The cost of admission for the popular Harbor Lights Winter Festival has doubled this year, but City Council president Rusty Walker said there’s a good reason.
He said the city breaks even on expenses for labor and contracting — everything from installing the huge displays to providing security — but Gulfport also hopes to build reserve funds for light replacements and keeping the initial investment of $1.3 million in tip-top shape.
“Despite having the very generous benefactor, it would be dishonorable, it would be against the public interest and it just wouldn't be right to never put a replacement strand of lights out,” Walker said.
Island View Casino Resort pledged $2.5 million to the city over five years, beginning with the inaugural year of 2015, to fund the light show.
The city charged $5 a ticket the first year, intending to increase the amount to $7.50 in the second year and $10 in the third year. However, tickets remained at $5 each in 2016, although the bargain price of $20 for a carload of event-goers was discontinued.
The city decided in 2017 to move ahead with the $10 admission price. Walker said a strand of LED lights run $6-$13, while multi-colored LED lights cost $35 to $185 a strand. Those lights change colors on the show’s signature Christmas trees in time to holiday music playing on the festival grounds.
Walker said the city replaced 37 strands on the trees on Wednesday.
Leisure Services Director Gus Wesson said some visitors have noted the higher admission cost, but the city’s show is still less expensive than holiday light displays in City Park in New Orleans or Bellingrath Gardens in Mobile, Alabama.
The city also tried to make sure residents can still get a better deal on the show by selling passes for 12 visits at $80. The passes can be used all at one time for a big group, or multiple times by fewer people. The cost averages out to about $6.66 a ticket, or an increase over last year of $1.67.
Wesson said the prices on two rides, the Ferris wheel and a spinner ride, have been reduced from $4 to $3. The city pays the ride companies a base amount, guaranteeing them a return on their participation, to keep down the cost of rides.
Wesson said lights also have been added to the show, which spreads through Jones Park and the harbor. He said he’s heard great reviews from visitors so far.
"The show has grown substantially every year,” he said. “We've got to operate it where it's within budget. We can't operate it at a loss.”
Walker said he recently approached 11 groups at the show, learning that eight of them were from out of town. City officials from the start saw the winter festival, which runs from November 24 through December 31, as a way to bring in tourists during what is traditionally the off season in South Mississippi.