GREENSBORO Zack Matheny calls the annual Festival of Lights “the best event of the year in downtown Greensboro.”

“When A&T’s gospel choir starts singing and you’ve got thousands of people shoulder to shoulder singing carols, it’s just magical,” Matheny said. “It truly brings the community together like no other event.”

On Friday night, Matheny’s organization will make the 31st annual Festival of Lights happen.

He’s president and chief executive officer of Downtown Greensboro Inc., the economic development agency focused on center city. Since 2016, it has run the Festival of Lights, Saturday’s Holiday Parade and the downtown Fun Fourth Festival on Independence Day.

Matheny holds a special affection for the holiday season. He will celebrate his 47th birthday on Christmas Eve.

He, his organization and the city began planning this year’s Festival of Lights soon after Fun Fourth.

Now they’re ready to host an estimated 60,000 people along the Elm Street for carols, acoustic performances, the community sing-along and tree-lighting in Center City Park, and of course, Santa and Mrs. Claus.

At 6:56 p.m., the 42-foot tree in Center City Park will illuminate with more than 1,000 bulbs.

Matheny keeps a close eye on the weather. Some cold drizzle fell on last year’s parade. But the show went on.

More than 20 musical groups will line Elm Street and nearby LeBauer Park. Stilt walkers, princesses and the UNCG Sapphires female a cappella group will stroll through the festival.

Check out an illuminated ice sculpture, marshmallow roasting offered by UNCG, face-painting, a pop-up beer garden and decorated store windows. Email to vote for the best.

Look for new features: a Toboggan Tunnel and Suma Santas.

“This is one that you don’t change a whole lot, although we’ve got some changes in every block,” Matheny said.

More activities and attractions have been added this year over the railroad tracks at South Elm and Lewis streets.

The Forge community makerspace will display holiday-related items.

DGI has added a second free photo booth, putting one near Elm and Lewis streets and the other near Center City Park.

“We’re trying to make it desirable to walk the full footprint,” Matheny said.

Did we mention snow?

At least six evaporative snow machines will blow fake flakes. DGI has purchased three new machines, and will rent at least three others.

Hamburger Square at South Elm and McGee streets — home to Santa and the ice sculpture — will remain the epicenter of snow. Look for more at the ice rink at LeBauer Park on the festival’s northern end, and at South Elm and Lewis streets.

Near Hamburger Square, the new Toboggan Tunnel will be erected in the city parking lot at South Elm Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Drive.

More than 15 feet tall and 45 feet long, Toboggan Tunnel will offer visitors a toboggan ride on an inflatable slide designed to resemble a mountainous snow adventure.

It cost DGI more than $4,000 to rent the Toboggan Tunnel. “We always try to do something special, unique and large, and this is it this year,” Matheny said.

Find Sumo Santas at the south end, thanks to sponsor Home State Apparel and its owner, Zeke Vantrese.

Don an inflatable Santa suit and prepare to wrestle.

There’s something just for adults. For the second year, Natty Greene’s Brewing Co. and Little Brother Brewing will host a Good Tidings pop-up beer garden at Elm and McGee streets at Hamburger Square.

And if that chills you, stop by one of four warming stations.

Holiday Parade

Matheny estimates that 60,000 people will return downtown at noon Saturday for the Holiday Parade. It happens rain or shine.

It will start at West Lindsay and North Greene streets, head south on Greene, turn left onto East Market Street and then left onto North Church Street, ending at East Lindsay Street.

Parade watchers will see more than 100 entries, including towering Macy’s-style balloons.

Last year, Matheny feared that the helium shortage would keep the massive balloons grounded. Negotiations solved the problem just two days before the parade, he said.

“You don’t think much about it, unless you run a holiday parade that has 42-foot balloons that require helium,” he said.

This year, balloon and helium supplier Big Events Inc. negotiated a national contract to keep its balloons afloat.

Look for several, including a 40-foot toy soldier, two 35-foot Penguins of Madagascar and a Garfield Santa, and a 50-foot Cat in the Hat. The Joseph M. Bryan Foundation will pick up the rental tab.

Party of 5 Eventz in Greensboro will dress several other walkers in balloon costumes.

They will join floats, bands, dance and drill teams — and Santa.

Although DGI keeps the Festival of Lights and Holiday Parade free to the public, they cost cash to produce: $45,000 for the Festival of Lights and $75,000 for the Holiday parade.

But Matheny and sponsors see their importance.

“The sense of community that these two events, back to back, represent is tremendous for Greensboro,” Matheny said.

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Contact Dawn DeCwikiel-Kane at 336-373-5204 and follow @dawndkaneNR on Twitter.

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