Only in Minnesota Holiday Lights
Everything Else Outdoors Mike's Meanderings My 2-Cents-Worth

From Mankato to Duluth – Lighting Up Minnesota’s Outdoor Holiday Scene

Maybe it’s because they remind me of a sky full of stars that have moved close enough to touch. Perhaps it’s the feeling that the multitude of colors somehow brings warmth to those frigid winter nights. Or it could be that I just can’t resist bright, shiny objects. The truth of the matter is, I just plain like Christmas light displays. Twinkling. Blinking. Steady burning. It doesn’t matter. Surround me with their shining light and I’m as giddy as Clark Griswold with an armload of extension cords.

You Betcha Winter Lights sign
Holiday Light Displays … you gotta love ’em!

I used to be “That Guy” who’s electric bill quadrupled in the month of December. But the older I get, the less ambition I have to climb a 15-foot ladder that’s precariously perched on an inch-thick slab of ice in the middle of a blizzard. Those lights that I’d brave that ladder to hang would, inevitably, short out in a week or so anyway. So, this year I opted out. Some call it, “getting smarter with age.” I prefer to rename it, “letting the dumber guys do it for me.”

Now, instead of hanging my own Christmas lights, I choose to go gaze at other fabulous displays instead. Three of the largest in Minnesota are Bentleyville in Duluth, the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum in Chaska, and the Kiwanis Holiday Lights in Mankato. They each have their own unique style; all are a delight for the eyes of any age group.

Duluth Lift Bridge Under the Lights
Give Your Holiday Spirit a Lift (Bridge) at Bentleyville in Duluth, Minnesota

Bentleyville: Give Your Holiday Spirit a Lift (Bridge)
Bayfront Festival Park — 704 West Railroad Street, Duluth, MN 55802

It’s only fitting that one of the top travel destinations in the state would host one of the largest displays of FREE, walk-through holiday lights in the country. The display definitely isn’t as sophisticated as its luxury car namesake, but with over 4 million lights, it certainly doesn’t lack flash, either!

Bentleyville 130-ft. tall Chistmas Tree
Bentleyville’s 130-ft. tall Christmas Tree is the centerpiece of the amazing light display with the beautiful backdrop of the Duluth harbor

From its nearly 130 ft. high, lighted tree centerpiece that’s covered in 150,000 LEDs and flashes in time to various Christmas carols, to the lighted canopy/tunnel walkways, to the various lighted ships, dinosaurs and other themed displays, there’s no shortage of eye-candy to grab your attention. Santa and Mrs. Claus even make an appearance each night to hear those gift requests from little girls and boys, and children 10 and under can receive a new knit hat and a bag of cookies from Santa. Roast a free marshmallow while you thaw out at one of the fire pits, or grab a free cup of hot cocoa to warm your insides.

Lighted Bentleyville Stage
Snowflakes, light and beauty take the stage at Bayfront Park

Give yourself at least 1 to 2 hours to explore the huge 2.5 square mile area. But don’t forget to bundle up. Although the setting on Lake Superior (with the lit-up lift bridge as its iconic backdrop) is almost as amazing as the colorful lights, some nights the breeze off of Gitche Gumee gets downright arctic, no matter what the thermometer reads.

Bentleyville Rocks Sign
When it comes to Holiday Light displays, this sign says it all!

Bentleyville Rates:
Admission is FREE to all ages, although new unwrapped toy and nonperishable food donations are accepted (and encouraged!) Donations will be distributed through the Salvation Army. Also, Free Will donation boxes are placed throughout the grounds to help support this event and continue to offer it at no cost to attendees.

Bentleyville Dates:
• November 23, 2019 – December 28, 2019

Every Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday: 5:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.
Every Friday and Saturday: 5:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m.

Lighted cabin at Bentleyville
Log some good old fashioned fun with plenty of lighted holiday displays like this cozy Bentleyville cabin


Minnesota Landscape Arboretum flower lights
Lighted flowers are the centerpiece of the holiday lights display at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum

The Minnesota Landscape Arboretum: Winter in Bloom!
3675 Arboretum Dr, Chaska, MN 55318

Poinsettia Tree at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum
25 feet of pure Christmas spirit stands tall and decks out the inside of the Arboretum’s Great Hall with this live Poinsettia tree

If you’re looking for an impressive display closer to the Twin Cities, the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum has been growing in size and loyal followers for the last few years. This place will make a plant lover’s mouth water! From the 25-foot high live poinsettia tree and themed evergreens decorated with botanically-inspired ornaments inside the great hall, to the gardens full of colorfully lighted flowers and trees outside, there’s no shortage of visual stimulation.

If the weather is chilly, stop by the campfires to warm up and maybe even make a s’more (although $5 per s’more seemed quite pricey, to me.) Great photo opportunities abound, and the mini evergreen gnomes and log snowmen are definitely a natural highlight. Wondering if the Willow Structure (made entirely from willow tree saplings and branches) is lit up for the occasion? You Betcha! You can even explore the inside if you’d like (but do be careful, the ground in there can get a bit icy.)

Lighted sleigh
This lighted green sleigh is just one of the many sophisticated light displays at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum

The Arboretum lights may lack the enormity and wow factor of Bentleyville, especially for kids, but the displays felt a bit classier to me and the all-natural/garden theme was effectively carried throughout. The price for non-members is a bit of a downfall, but the option to head indoors and warm up when needed is a definite plus. One warning, if you choose to go on a weekend, try to arrive before sundown, as the lines can get rather long once it gets dark. The Free Southwest transit shuttle on Friday and Saturday nights can be a great option. Plan on giving yourself 30-minutes to 1 hour outside, plus another 30 minutes inside the great hall. Don’t miss the free music!

Minnesota Landscape Arboretum Great Hall decorated ceiling
Floor to ceiling, the Arb’s decorative holiday display screams class!

Arboretum Rates:
• Member — Free!
Just show up and show your membership card or e-membership app at the gatehouse, no need to register!
Non-Member — $15 for adults ages 16 and older, Free for children 15 and younger. Avoid the lines … Non-member tickets are also available for online purchase in advance!

Arb lighted Willow structure
Is the Willow Structure lit up for the season? Ya, you betcha!

Arboretum Dates:
• November 22, 2019 – January 5, 2020

Open Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays Only: 5:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. (closed Mon.-Thurs. except on special dates)
*ADDITIONAL DATES: Dec. 23, 26 and 30, 2019; January 1 and 2, 2020 — 5:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m.
• Milk and Cookies with Santa ticketed event (special tickets required) Dec. 19th
• New Year’s Eve Party ticketed event (special tickets required) Dec. 31st

Lighted Minnesota Arboretum Building
The beautiful Arboretum building is so welcoming, inviting you to step inside and savor the season!


Kiwanis Holiday Lights display
The Kiwanis Holiday Display lights up the coldest of Mankato nights!

Mankato Kiwanis Holiday Lights: Making the Community a Brighter Place
Sibley Park — 900 Mound Ave., Mankato, MN 56001

Hot air balloon lighted display at the Kiwanis holiday lights
Blast off! with this lighted Hot Air Balloon that wows the crowd with a real burst of flame!

For the last 8 years the fine folks of Southern Minnesota haven’t been left out of the holiday light scene, either! Whether you’re driving through Sibley Park or walking the grounds, you will be treated to a rainbow of festive colors. 1.8 million LED lights brighten the night in a variety of smile-enticing displays. Right from the get-go the hot air balloon with impressive flame launch will grab your attention. The helicopter Santa will raise your spirits even higher, and a 60-ft. tall lighted Christmas tree in the center lawn will really peak your interest.

But the fun doesn’t stop there.  If you’re driving, you are instructed to tune your radio to a specific station before you enter the spectacular lighted driving tunnel to hear music that is specifically synced to the blinking performance of the displays on that end of the park. If you’re walking, the same music is piped through speakers, enabling you to witness the choreography up close and personal.

Live reindeer at Mankato's Kiwanis light display
Santa’s live reindeer are on site to help deliver an authentic holiday experience

Some other fun features of the Kiwanis lights include the skating rink with warming house, live Christmas carolers, horse-drawn wagon rides, Santa Claus, and ice sculpting on the last weekend before Christmas! Of course, you can’t miss the LIVE REINDEER kept in the dark confines of the barn area (lighting is limited so the creatures don’t prematurely shed their antlers!) A contest between non-profit organizations also produces a row of uniquely decorated trees along the back side of the route. I’d suggest walking the display (1/2 hour should enable you to see it all) if at all possible, as there’s way too much for the eyes to take in on a quick drive-through.

Lighted soldiers and nutcracker
The Kiwanis lighted salute to the troops is a touching way to complete this wonderful lighted display

The lighted tribute to the troops earns my salute as a perfect way to cap off the trip around this magical park. Get in line early on weekends, as it took us over an hour to drive from the entrance gate to the beginning of the display on a very blustery 0-degree Saturday. Luckily, we found a parking spot once inside the gate and could walk the grounds at our own pace.

Lighted Santa and his reindeer
You can’t have a Christmas light display without Santa Claus and his sleigh team!

Kiwanis Rates:
Admission is FREE to all ages, whether you’re walking or driving your way through the display. Cash and non-perishable food donations are accepted at the driving entrance and will be distributed to those in need within the community.

Kiwanis Dates:
• November 29, 2019 – December 31, 2019

Every Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday: 5:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.
Every Friday and Saturday: 5:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m.

Mankato Kiwanis light display main features
Lights, lights, everywhere! Over 1.8 million in all at this Mankato display!


And the Winner Is …
Looking for a ranking of the displays? They are ALL worth your time, but in my humble opinion (and I wasn’t even “lit” when I formed this opinion), kids will love Bentleyville the best. Adults will enjoy the more sophisticated version of lights and the indoor/outdoor options available at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum. And if you love the outdoor lights but prefer to park your butt in the warmth of a car interior to enjoy them, the Mankato Kiwanis Lights is definitely the route to go.

Lighted snowflake arch
Lighted arches, snowflakes, and millions of colorful lights, you’ll find them all at any of these great displays!

Where is  your ultimate Holiday Lights Display located? Is it one we talked about in this Blog, or are there others we definitely shouldn’t miss? Share your favorite location or photos with us in the comments box below or shoot us an email at

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2 Comment

  1. One downside to Bentleyville: The crowded walkways sometimes make it difficult to truly enjoy the displays. I don’t know the best time to go. Maybe nearer the end of the night when most little ones are home in bed? I have yet to be there in the last 4 or 5 years when the crowds weren’t a detriment to the viewing experience. But I DO love the campfire smell from the warming fires!

    1. Terri, we went on the Sunday night BEFORE Thanksgiving. The weather was mild, but fortunately, the crowd was still pretty light. It did seem to lack a little Holiday Spirit so early in the season, though. All of these displays just keep getting more popular each season, so if you’re not a fan of crowds, that can definitely be a drawback.

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