Chattanooga-area tourist attractions are finding that some traditions will have to be tweaked as they begin their holiday-themed celebrations for 2020.
Many tourism hot spots pivoted to advance or timed-entry ticket sales months ago as a function of reopening after coronavirus lockdowns in March. Those safety measures, aimed at limiting capacity and aiding in social distancing, remain in place. The holiday season adds a few more considerations, such as keeping Santa safe.
"We're doing things a little bit differently this year," said Steve Freer, operations supervisor for the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum, which will run its popular North Pole Limited excursions on select dates Nov. 21-Dec. 27.
"Santa won't be on the train this year," Freer said. "Kids will still see Santa when they get to the North Pole, but he'll be viewed from the train."
Santa's helpers will act as go-betweens to deliver wish lists and distribute hot chocolate for the return trip, he said.
At Rock City Gardens, the Enchanted Garden of Lights, starting Friday, will be the first special event of the year for the Lookout Mountain attraction.
"We closed in March, literally the day before our Shamrock City event," said President and CEO Susan Harris. "Kind of the hallmark of our events is food, music and crowds," which happen to be three things public health officials frown on with an airborne virus at pandemic levels.
She's confident they can safely move forward with Enchanted Garden of Lights because of the safety measures officials have put in place since the park reopened the last weekend of May. Just being able to prepare for the massive holiday light display was cause for celebration among the staff, she said, especially since every other event had been wiped from the calendar.
"This is our 26th year [for Enchanted Garden of Lights]," she said. "We start wrapping trees [in lights] on the Tuesday after Labor Day. [This year] we started wrapping trees, and it was such a joyous moment, just for our team to know that this is a thing we do every year and we're doing it in 2020, by gosh."
In the past few years, guests have been invited to "choose their own path" through the display, but the park will return to a one-way trail this year. The nightly roster of musical guests is a no-go, as are interactions with elves and other costumed characters. But Santa Claus will be on the premises.
"Our animation team really felt strongly about having Santa," Harris said. "That was really a place where they could put their energy and find a way where everybody felt safe that still provided a personal visit with Santa."
Their brainstorming produced "a massive beautiful workshop" and "a really large desk to keep up with the naughty and nice lists," Harris said. Santa stays behind the desk. The children are several feet away and can sit on a little bench beside the desk to pose for photos, with no masks and no acrylic barriers, she said.
"I think the longing for things familiar is real," Harris said. "We're happy to be able to bring that to guests."
Among its efforts, the Tennessee Aquarium is finding ways to bring its activities into homes, said Thom Benson, vice president and chief communications and marketing officer.
All animal programs, dive shows and penguin feedings, which typically draw crowds to the tanks, have been suspended until they are deemed safe to resume. However, visits by the diving Scuba Claus will be done as Facebook Live streams, he said, and several "cinema on demand" films featuring sea critters or other educational topics will be available for home viewing.
"Anybody can stream these videos for 99 cents," he said.
"The Polar Express" will return Nov. 27 for families whose holiday traditions include a 3D viewing of the classic film. The Imax Theater, adjacent to the aquarium, is restricted to 80 guests, rather than the 400 it will hold, Benson said.
"Our hope is to have a robust holiday season, but when you're limiting capacity, it's a balancing act," he said. "Clearly we need visitors to be successful, but we also need to make sure we're providing a safe environment."
Barry White, chief executive officer of Chattanooga Tourism Co., said the national surge in coronavirus cases "could erode consumer confidence," but he's hopeful leisure travelers will continue to visit Chattanooga and that local residents will feel safe to venture out.
"Chattanooga is well positioned for families and couples that can get in the car and drive a couple of hours to see us," he said.
Many visitors over the summer, he said, were returning visitors who felt comfortable with coming to Chattanooga.
"Our base audience was there," White said. "I think there's an eagerness to get out of the house and go somewhere."
Benson said he believes Hamilton County's mask mandate works in favor of the area's tourism industry.
"It does two things," he said. "It gives everybody that extra level of comfort knowing that the attractions are doing everything they can to provide a safe environment. And it also levels the playing field if everybody — all the other attractions, restaurants, hotels — [has] to abide by the same rules."
Email Lisa Denton at firstname.lastname@example.org.
SAVE THE DATE
A sampling of upcoming Chattanooga holiday events:
* Ice on the Landing, through Jan. 25
* EPB holiday windows, Nov. 25-Jan. 4
* Themed lunch and dinner cruises aboard Southern Belle riverboat, Nov. 26-Dec. 31 (select dates)
* Lantern tours of Ruby Falls, Nov. 20-Dec. 19 (select dates)
* Enchanted Garden of Lights at Rock City, Nov. 20-Jan. 2
* Lighted Boat Parade at the riverfront, Nov. 27
* Gingerbread workshops at Creative Discovery Museum, Nov. 27-Dec. 20
* Holidays Under the Peaks at Tennessee Aquarium, Nov. 29-Dec. 31
* North Pole Limited train rides at Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum, Nov. 21-Dec. 27 (select days); other excursions, including Christmas dinner trains and Hiwassee holiday trains, also available
* Holiday Lights at Chattanooga Zoo, Dec. 10-12, Dec. 17-19