How Franklin Square prepares for its annual holiday light spectacular

This year’s show kicked off last week, but organizers started hanging lights in October. The display has grown over the past decade.

Franklin Square is lit up for the holidays

Franklin Square is lit up for the holidays, with an "Electrical Spectacle" show happening each evening. (Asha Prihar/Billy Penn)

For some people, the day after Thanksgiving is perfect for hanging winter holiday decor and lights. But that’s not the case in Philadelphia’s Franklin Square, where the annual effort began in October.

The Old City park kicks off its free, daily “Electrical Spectacle Light Show” every year in mid-November as part of its Winter in Franklin Square programming. It takes over a month and around a hundred people to put together, according to Brian Sotack, who’s been handling set-up for the display since the first one in 2013.

“Some people come through the park and see us wrapping trees [in the fall],” said Sotack, director of IT and operations for Historic Philadelphia, the nonprofit that programs the park. “They’re like, you’re wrapping Christmas lights already? Yes, that’s how long it takes.”

The effort results in lights strung all over the park, illuminating many of its tree trunks and branches, the roofs and edges of its buildings, and its central fountain. There are also glowy flamingos, dancing snowflakes projected onto the ground, and a shining kite and key displayed on the fountain — a tribute to the park’s namesake.

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The most challenging element of installing it all? Per Sotack, it’s the process of wrapping six or seven large tree trunks in lights, which reach up as high as 22 feet.

Trees in Franklin Square that are wrapped in string lights
One of about a half dozen tall trees in Franklin Square that are wrapped in string lights, running over 20 feet up their trunks. (Asha Prihar/Billy Penn)

Historic Philadelphia handles that, and each tree can be done in a day if they’re super efficient, Sotack said. But realistically, he said it’s more like two days per trunk — and once you count other delays in between, the process generally stretches out to a month.

“When those trees are wrapped and done, I feel a sense of relief,” he said. “I don’t have to worry about climbing up that ladder to get those done.”

Historic Philadelphia doesn’t do it alone. PECO and IBEW help out in early November, Sotack said. PECO works on lighting the trees along the park’s diagonal walkways and provides a lift to install strobes in some of the taller trees. IBEW installs the kite and other elements around the fountain, and they also set up the “electrical backbone that is required to power everything,” per Sotack.

As for the actual timing of the lights to the music, that’s programmed by a designer and loaded onto a card that staff plugs in a few minutes ahead of the first light show of the night. The daily shows last for a few minutes at a time, and they happen every 30 minutes between 5 and 9 p.m.

Taking everything down at the end of the season and packing it up is about a two-week process.

Managing everything and making sure things stay on track can be a challenge, but it’s one that Sotack welcomes.

“I enjoy all the technical challenges that come with this,” he said. “There’s a lot of troubleshooting that goes on. There’s a lot of people to oversee and to make this all happen. It’s all just one big challenge of a variety of things coming at you from all different directions, and you just gotta make it all work.”

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Organizers have gradually added more elements to the show since its first year, Sotack said, but the timeframe for putting the display together has largely remained the same.

Enhancements over the years include adding lights to building roofs, expanding the number of trees that have lights on them, adding a light-up LED tower, and adding the theater-style lights that project animated snowflakes onto the ground.

Franklin Square's holiday light display
Franklin Square’s holiday light display includes theater-style lights that project dancing snowflakes onto the ground. (Asha Prihar/Billy Penn)

“It’s kind of, where can we put more lights?” Sotack said. “What is not lit up now that we could light, and can we fit it into the schedule? That’s really the toughest challenge … you add more lights, you’ve added more work to that timeframe. You know, you’re starting in October, and you don’t want to put everything up too too early.”

There are three versions of this season’s spectacle — which is free and open to the public — running through Jan. 7, each featuring two songs. Selections range from Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You” to “Sleigh Ride” performed by Peter Nero and The Philly Pops.

From Jan. 11 through Feb. 25, there will be a shorter show set to “Winter Wonderland” running Thursdays through Sundays between 5 and 7 p.m. Shows are subject to cancellation if the weather is bad.

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