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San Jose’s Christmas in the Park isn’t coming to an end, but COVID-19 hazards have certainly forced the 40-year tradition to change lanes.

The beloved South Bay festivity opened on Friday as a drive-thru experience on Senter Road and will be in place until Jan. 3.

Yes, things have changed. Residents won’t be able to purchase the classic snowman hot chocolates or tickets to amusement rides like the Ferris wheel. Children cannot sit on Santa’s lap and admission is no longer free.

But J.R. Mattos, exhibit engineer and Christmas-lights decorator extraordinaire, is confident that the new additions make up for lost traditions.

“The drive-thru was created as a way to help deal with the COVID-19 situation, while still bringing Christmas in the Park cheer, but it will be much more than that.”

J.R. Mattos, event organizer

“This is a new type of show that no one has ever seen before,” said Mattos, whose holiday displays at San Jose’s Mattos Orchard Lights have been widely cherished for years.

“The drive-thru was created as a way to help deal with the COVID-19 situation, while still bringing Christmas in the Park cheer, but it will be much more than that,” Mattos said.

The 30-minute drive starts in History Park’s vast parking lot on Phelan Avenue and uses more than 150,000 colorful lights and 300 community and business-decorated trees to guide drivers through pixel light tunnels with flying reindeer, life-sized Rockstar unicorns and classic Christmas in the Park animatronic holiday scenes.

Old favorites join new exhibits

Long-time San Jose residents and Christmas in the Park enthusiasts will spot some animatronic staples including the Bear Pond Ice Rink, Christmas Ornament Mine, Jazz Trolley Car, Penguin Flight School and Happy Hollow’s Danny the Dragon. And of course, the 50-foot-tall Mega Tree will also be part of the show.

“There are a lot of things that are unique to our event and unique to any event that no drive-thru light show has ever done before like a Candy Cane Mega Tree,” Jason Minsky, Executive Director of Christmas in the Park said. “We also have a pixel forest where lights basically go into motion and this is the first year that a pixel light is used in a drive-thru setting.”

Visitors can still expect some familiar favorites on the 30-minute drive, including the 50-foot-tall Mega Tree.

Other new additions include a LED snowflake archway and an installation by New Ballet in which a pair of 96-foot-long lit curtains lead drivers to a scene from “The San Jose Nutcracker” with a massive Queen of Snow structure. And on some days, dancers from the local ballet school will be there for live performances.

History Park is also riddled with historic structures and buildings like the blacksmith’s shop, the print shop and Dashaway Stables which have been decorated in a plethora of lights to host Santa’s reindeer, elves and of course, Santa himself. And for families with young children, make sure to seat them on the left side for a clear view of Mr. Claus and Co.

“We are very excited to be working with (the) Christmas in the Park crew to bring this tradition to our venue in 2020. We feel that this will expose History Park to thousands of people that might not have seen the beauty of our park” said Bill Schroh, president and CEO of History San Jose.

All the illuminated archways and thousands of lights are also programmed to change in sync with Christmas music that visitors can tune into at 93.1 FM for a multi-sensory experience.

“Basically, you tune into your radio and we have a 12-song soundtrack that plays so no matter where you are at in the show or if you come tonight or Tuesday it is going to be a different show for everybody because you will be listening to different music at different spots,” Minsky said. “We had a couple soft-openings and people were blown away. I really think this is going to be very popular.”

Reservations required

Christmas in the Park is open every day from 4 to 10 p.m. and requires reservations to be booked online. There is a $20 charge per vehicle but the price drops to $10 between 4 and 5 p.m. Though the diminishing daylight may impact some of the light shows, it can also make displays and decorations easier to see.

“We know that people are used to our event having free admission, but due to lost revenue, as a result of COVID-19 and having to move toward a drive-thru, having a ticketed event is necessary,” Jason Minsky, Christmas in the Park’s executive director said.

However, Minsky added that he knows the price tag may exclude many and has teamed up with local community organizations SOMOS Mayfair and Catholic Charities to distribute free tickets available on the Christmas in the Park website. Already, they have given out more than 1,500 tickets, Minsky said.

San Jose residents may also reach out to their respective city councilmember to get discounted tickets.

“We want to be here for our community and in some way, shape or form, we will get through this together in 2020 and hopefully return stronger and back to normal for 2021,” Minsky said.