Light Up Ocala returns to the square

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Posted June 24, 2021 | By Beth Whitehead, Special to the Ocala Gazette

[Dave Miller]

For nearly four straight decades, Light Up Ocala ushered in the holiday season before the tradition fell victim to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.

This year, the event is back and planned for Nov. 20 on the downtown square.

“2020 was challenging, so the fact that we can come together and celebrate this year is really exciting… it’s something that literally people ask for every year, so it’s exciting to have it return again this year,” said Ashley Dobbs, Ocala spokeswoman.

Ocala Mayor Kent Guinn also welcomed the return of the event.

“It’s a big deal,” Guinn said. “It brings the community together, it’s the kickoff to the Christmas season, and people love coming downtown—they’ll love this. And yeah, it’s an exciting time in Ocala.”

Last year, the Ocala City Council voted to cancel Light Up Ocala due to COVID-19 social distancing worries. The event typically hosts an estimated 30,000 people packed into a few city blocks. Even with estimates of a crowd size of between 10,000 to 15,000 people, social distancing would have been difficult.

While the event was canceled, the lights still went up, and smaller, subsequent events charmed the square. Holiday pop-ups of Santa and elves lined different sections of the sidewalk, ready for a family picture while music played on specific nights. Most notably, Santa popped up on a surveillance camera early one morning, flipping the switch and lighting the square up like a chandelier. Thanks to social media, the video garnered a lot of attention, Dobbs said.

“So, there were still activities that people could partake in,” she said, “But it just allowed for a little bit more crowd control to not have thousands of people descend on the downtown square.”

While still five months away, preparation for the five-hour event begins during the summer and requires the interface of multiple city departments.

“Everyone’s involved,” Guinn said, “From parks and rec, public works, police department, fire department. There’s a lot of manpower involved… it’s an amazing event.”

The first Light Up Ocala was held the weekend after Thanksgiving in 1984 and was hosted by the Downtown Development Commission. Over the years, Santa began to show up. Other attractions in past years included an ice-skating rink and a Ferris wheel, according to city records supplied by Dobbs.

Applications for vendors, youth performers and Junior Sunshine Parade participants are now open, with a deadline of Aug. 20 at 5 p.m. For information visit or call 352-368-5517.

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