My New Orleans: City Park's John Hopper

City Park's jolly chief development officer weighs in on Celebration in the Oaks, Mr. Bingle and channeling Papa Noël.

Dating to 1854, New Orleans City Park is one of the oldest and largest urban parks in the U.S., and with more than 165,000 visitors each December, its annual Celebration in the Oaks extravaganza ranks among the nation’s leading holiday light shows. Scattered among 25 acres, 558,350 LED bulbs illuminate centuries-old live oak trees, along with dozens of charming displays. While the elves worked their magic, we touched base with park spokesperson John Hopper for insight into what goes on behind the scenes of the annual event.

How long does it take to get the park Celebration ready?

It’s a year-round process. All of the decorations, outside of the actual strings of lights, are manufactured by park personal throughout the year. That’s one of the things that makes Celebration so unique; even if you wanted to buy a 14-ft. animated alligator, you probably couldn’t find one. They’re working all time, even in the heat of the summer, and start putting the decorations up around August or September; you can’t do it all in just two weeks. As we get closer, we have volunteers who help out as well.

Which display is the most popular?

Mr. Bingle, who used to hang on the side of the Maison Blanche department store on Canal Street during the holidays. Now he has his own float in City Park. People also love the “Dripping Snow Tree” in the Botanical Gardens. And you can’t go wrong riding the train; it’s a two-mile path, and we keep adding more lights every year.

Celebration in the Oaks Dripping Snow Tree

Which is your personal favorite?

Last year we added “Sea-Labration,” a kind of jewel-encrusted display of sea life on the wall of the Japanese Garden that’s really unique. You won’t see it anywhere else in the world.

What keeps folks coming back year after year?

Tradition. There are people who have taken families pictures in front of the poinsettia tree for the past 20 years. That’s one of the great things about Celebration in the Oaks; it brings a lot of families together.

Name a few other local holiday must-dos for visitors.

Get on the St. Charles streetcar and see all the lights along the avenue. It’s a beautiful ride. Then there’s Caroling in Jackson Square. I’m a terrible singer, but still enjoy it.

Caroling in Jackson Square

Despite its name, City Park is largely privately funded. Talk about Celebration’s role in helping maintain the park and the importance of volunteers.

We get 15% of our $15-million operating budget from the state, the rest we raise ourselves. Celebration helps generate a sizable portion of that. And we’re extremely grateful to have had 200,000 volunteers over the past several years; there’s no way the park could look as good as it does without their sweat equity.

The white hair, the beard, the twinkling holiday lights: Do you have a Papa Noël complex?

Perhaps. I’ve always liked Christmas and the holidays, and growing up we always had a lot of lights on our house. Maybe I just channeled that to City Park.

New Orleans City Park Peristyle


Douglas Brantley
About the author

Doug serves as the New Orleans editor for Where. He has lived ...