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Saturday, January 18, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Organizers brace for growing crowds at Manito Park conservatory Christmas light display

UPDATED: Thu., Dec. 12, 2019

Horticulture Supervisor Steve Nittolo walks around the Gaiser Conservatory at Manito Park on Thursday, ahead of the annual holiday light show that starts Friday, with 30,000 lights draped on the tropical plants, flowering plants, exotic flowers and cacti. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Horticulture Supervisor Steve Nittolo walks around the Gaiser Conservatory at Manito Park on Thursday, ahead of the annual holiday light show that starts Friday, with 30,000 lights draped on the tropical plants, flowering plants, exotic flowers and cacti. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Thousands of Spokanites and out-of-town visitors flood Manito Park’s Gaiser Conservatory each December for the chance to take a 15-minute-or-so walk among cacti and palm trees strung with Christmas lights, glowing snowmen and reindeer, and several hundred poinsettias of different varieties.

Event organizers are bracing for even bigger crowds this year.

While the lights go on at noon Friday, people have already been knocking at the doors to get a peek.

“Once I turn on the lights, people are going to come,” said Steve Nittolo, city horticulture supervisor.

“It’s like moths to light,” added Kelly Brown, vice president of the Friends of Manito, which partners with the city to put on the event.

Last year, as many as 1,700 people waited in line for upward of 45 minutes to walk through the display on busy nights during the free 10-day event. Organizers added an outdoor bench with lights and decorations as a photo opportunity to help people pass the time. In all, about 13,000 people visited during peak evening hours when volunteers counted attendance.

“We have something that so many people flock to in Spokane and make a part of their holiday and Christmas rounds,” said Brown, who compared the display to traditions like the Christmas trees at the Historic Davenport Hotel and the Lake Coeur d’Alene Christmas cruise. “It’s so nice that we have this glowing little greenhouse in the middle of the city.”

With the help of social media and word of mouth, attendance more than quadrupled during the last decade, according to the Friends of Manito. The event started in 1994, and around 450 people attended in 1997. Nearly 2,700 people came in 2008 during peak hours. The event broke 10,000 for the first time in 2013, with more than 11,500 visitors.

The display includes more than 600 poinsettia plants of eight varieties that take two weeks for gardeners to plant, but they have been growing from root balls for months in another Manito greenhouse. The plants have to be stored in the dark at night because the flowers bloom in reaction to the shortening fall days.

“Once the poinsettias start flowering, they keep flowering,” Nittolo said.

One of the poinsettia trees is 23 years old, and a wing of the conservatory contains a Christmas cactus more than 100 years old that flowers each December. Nittolo said people also are amazed by the conservatory’s flowering jade plants, which tend not to bloom in colder climates.

People can see the lights – which number 30,000 and took gardeners weeks to carefully place – from noon until 7:30 p.m. Friday through Dec. 22. Nittolo said gardeners change the light arrangements each year to create new experiences for visitors.

The busiest hours are in the evenings and on weekends, so Nittolo recommends wearing warm clothes or coming during the weekdays for no wait. The lights will remain on display from noon to 3:30 p.m. Dec. 23-31.

In addition to the display, the Friends of Manito will host an open house from 3 to 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Children will have the chance to decorate holiday cookies and meet Santa in the Manito Meeting Room for free. Poinsettias and Manito Park calendars will be for sale.

The Friends of Manito provides the lights, decorations and crowd management staff for the display, while city staff construct the display. Brown said the Friends of Manito hopes to obtain sponsors for the growing event in future years to offset increased costs to the nonprofit.

“It’s just a happy little event that we’re glad to provide to the community,” Brown said.

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