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Ocala City Council cancels annual Light up Ocala celebration

Published: Oct. 21, 2020 at 4:53 PM EDT
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OCALA, Fla. (WCJB) - Christmas in Ocala is going to look a little different this year.

The Ocala City Council has decided to cancel the city’s annual ‘Light up Ocala’ event.

The City Council made the decision at it’s meeting Tuesday night, voting unanimously to cancel the event.

“And that was done in part to minimize the potential spread or risk of COVID-19. There’s just not a way for us to possibly safely social distance people,” Marketing & Communication Manager for the City of Ocala, Ashley Dobbs said.

During the Tuesday meeting Mayor Kent Guinn voiced his disapproval of canceling the event.

“I just think it’s very unfortunately that we’re cancelling something that we’ve had for all of these years and we’re deciding, not the people…I just think it’s wrong,” he said.

But even though the big celebration has been canceled, there will still be Christmas cheer spread throughout Ocala’s downtown this year. A series of smaller alternative holiday events has been scheduled.

City officials also wanted to make it clear that the lights will still be up, even though the event has been canceled.

“We want to make it very clear that the lights are still going up. City staff are also working to create some smaller events. We’re still going to have ‘Santa on the Square’, there’s going to be holiday movies, there’s going to be really cute holiday pop-ups where people can come down and take pictures, holiday pictures. There’s still going to be a lot of just seller festivities that people can come down and enjoy the downtown area,” Dobbs said.

In response to Mayor Guinn’s concern, Assistant City Manager Ken Whitehead explained that with the smaller events, city staff hope visitors come throughout the next few months instead of all at once for the several hour celebration.

“The primary difference will be the duration. The 10 to 15 thousand we still hope will come downtown, but instead of them coming for four to five hours, we hope they come over a 30 or 40 day time frame,” Whitehead said.

Historically, the event attracts upwards of 25,000 people to the six-block downtown square. For thousands of families, Light up Ocala has been a staple tradition.

Ocala mother, Katherine Bach said she’s sad to see it canceled but understands why the decision was made.

“It’s a life or death thing. I actually have diabetes so I understand where a lot of it is coming from and I have young children, but we also own a small business so it’s important for our economy to be open,” Bach said.

Residents can expect the light display to officially be turned on the week of Nov. 15.

Before the council discussion ended Tuesday night, Council President Jay Musleh, wanted to leave the issue on a positive note, looking forward to the rescheduled event in 2021.

These alternative holiday events will be held throughout the month of December:

* Dec. 2: Story telling - In partnership with the Marion County Public Library, The Polar Express will be read by actors and dancers at the Jenkins Open Air Amphitheater next to the Reilly Arts Center, 500 NE Ninth St. Attendees should bring their own chairs.

* Dec. 3 – 17 (select nights): Santa on the Square - Santa will be available for photos in the Downtown Square gazebo Tuesday and Thursday evenings. Pre-registration is required for a socially distanced photo with Santa. For reservations, contact lartis@ocalafl.org.

* Dec. 4 -18 (select nights): Holiday movies series - Movies are free to attend; hot cocoa will be available on a first come, first served basis. Attendees should bring their own chairs.

* The Muppet Christmas Carol, Dec. 4, 7 p.m., Citizens' Circle, 110 SE Watula Ave.

* The Polar Express, Dec. 11, 7 p.m., Tuscawilla Art Park, 213 NE Fifth St.

* Elf, Dec. 18, 7 p.m., Tuscawilla Oak Grove, 500 NE Ninth St.

* Dec. 8 -10: Santa’s Calling - Parents can submit an application for Santa and his elves to call boys and girls for the holiday season. Applications are available at www.ocalafl.org/holidays.

* Dec. 10: Senior Holiday Luncheon - For adults 50 years and older, come celebrate the season with an afternoon of fun, prizes, games and a delicious lunch at the Ocala Golf Club! $5 per person and pre-registration is required. Register at www.ocalafl.org/holidays.

* Dec. 16: Santa Paws - Santa will be available for pet portraits at Citizens' Circle, 110 SE Watula Ave., 5 to 8 p.m. A $10 donation benefiting the Marion County Humane Society is required; vendors and adoptable dogs will be available. No registration required.

* Live music downtown - Bands, groups and performers will perform at the Downtown Square and Citizens' Circle Wednesday through Sunday evenings in December.

* Holiday pop-up photo ops - Throughout downtown Ocala, photo op locations will be available starting at the end of November through early January. From giant candy canes to Santa’s sleigh, there will be over five locations to take festive selfies and photos all holiday season long.

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