Bentleyville Tour of Lights
Bentleyville Tour of Lights is a massive, annual Christmas Light display that illuminates the Bayfront Park in Duluth each year from late-November until after Christmas. The display started from a modest at-home display and has grown to become the largest free walkthrough light display in the US.
The Beginning of Bentleyville in Esko
Nathan Bentley really loves Christmas. In 2001, he started sharing this with his neighbors in his small town of Esko, Minnesota. He did this by creating an elaborate light display at his home. Over the next few years, his light display grew and became more and more elaborate. It eventually became a walk-through display. In 2004 the display got named “Bentleyville Tour of Lights”, and people from all over the Northland would drive out to his new home in Cloquet to experience it first hand.
Each year, the display got bigger and bigger as Nathan added new pieces to it. In addition to the lights, Nathan started creating a true wintertime experience. He included fire pits for visitors to gather around roasting marshmallows and a Cookie House with free cookies and hot cocoa.
A Growing Traffic Problem in Cloquet
As Bentleyville Tour of Lights grew in popularity, so did the traffic in Nathan’s rural neighborhood. It was decided that parking on the highway was too dangerous. So, parking lots had to be constructed on neighboring properties and visitors were bused to the display. By year five, Bentleyville Tour of Lights was receiving over 72,000 visitors! That’s when Duluth Mayor Don Ness stepped in to come up with a solution to the ongoing traffic problems created by the light display: Move the whole thing to Duluth’s Bayfront Park.
The Move to Duluth’s Bayfront Park
In 2009, Nathan Bentley did just that. Bayfront Park has been the home to Bentleyville Tour of Lights ever since. The display attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors each winter. Many traveling long distances to see the famous lights of Bentleyville for themselves. The display has continued to grow since moving to its home in Duluth with the addition of over $150,000 worth of new lights, light tunnels, and attractions being added.
The Christmas Traditions at Bentleyville Tour of Lights Continue
When Nathan agreed to move Bentleyville to Duluth he wanted the spirit of the display to remain the same. As a result, the Bentleyville Tour of Lights continues to be a free attraction to visitors. Also, you can still find free cookies, cocoa, and popcorn, plus the firepits and marshmallows are still readily available.
Donation boxes give visitors who are able the opportunity to support the ever-growing light display. But, for those who are needing a little Christmas cheer on a budget, this is a wonderful opportunity. There is a $5 cost for parking in the designated Bentleyville parking lots, but this contribution helps keep the lights going year after year.
Duluth’s Bentleyville Tour of Lights
What started as an at-home light display has turned into Duluth’s premiere Christmas-time attraction. The light display has earned numerous awards over the years, including winning USA Today’s Best Public Light Display contest in 2019. It really is fun and affordable for the whole family. So, if you’re in Duluth anytime from mid-November the end of December (dates vary each year), plan to make a visit to Bentleyville to experience the Christmas magic yourself.
The Bentleyville Tour of Lights has called Bayfront Park "home" since 2009, attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors each winter. The display has grown exponentially since moving to its home in Duluth with the addition of over $150,000 worth of new lights, light tunnels, and attractions.
The whole experience can be free or cost as low as $5, the cost of parking on site. Free parking can be found in downtown Duluth. From there, you can take the skywalk to Bentleyville. However, it’s getting harder and harder to find free parking, so plan to spend at least $5. There are also shuttle buses that pick up visitors in various parts of Duluth. Plus, a Christmas Train that brings you to the park from the depot. Each year, transportation options grow!
Bring some money to donate, if you can. Bentleyville continues to run year after year thanks to the generous donations it receives, and the many volunteers who dedicate countless hours to keeping the lights going. Your donation goes to help maintain the lights and keep the experience free for those who need it.
What To Do and When to Do It
Add your kids’ names to the Naughty or Nice List before you go (you can start submitting names in October). They get printed off and hung near the popcorn cart.
When you first arrive, grab some cookies and hot cocoa from the Cookie House near the main entrance. Hang onto these for something to snack on in Santa’s line.
Cut through the first part of the light displays and go see Santa first. When you exit Santa’s house you will end up back out in the main entrance area (where the cocoa and cookies are). This way, your kids get to see Santa, and you get the longest line over with first. Then, you can really enjoy the rest of the Bentleyville experience. Santa will gift kids under age 10 with a knit winter cap and a bag of cookies.
After visiting Santa, go see Mrs. Claus. She’s sitting in her bakery just past the Cookie House. She’ll give your kids a candy cane after their visit.
Next, enjoy the first part of the light display and grab some popcorn at the Popcorn Factory. Here, you can look for your names on the Naughty and Nice lists.
Be sure to stop to take some photos in the photo-op stations located all around Bentleyville Tour of Lights.
Then, roast marshmallows and make smores at the Marshmallow Hut.
Finally, enjoy the last half of the light display then head into the Gift Shop for some souvenirs. Prices are affordable and the quality is good to great on most items.
When to Go
Avoid going on Saturdays, if you can. Bentleyville Tour of Lights’ website has a great Crowd-O-Meter on their Visitor Guide that will give you an idea of the busiest and slowest days. If you are able to, you’ll have the best experience going mid-week.
If Saturday is the only chance you have to go, plan to arrive after 7PM, or go on a colder day. The biggest rush tends to happen when the display first opens and in the after-dinner hours.
How to Dress
The temperature by Lake Superior can be dramatically different than elsewhere in Duluth. Bring layers that can be removed, if needed. Bring a large bag or stroller with you to stash away extra layers.
Bentleyville is great for all ages. They have a limited number of free strollers and wheelchairs you can borrow during your visit. Pick them up outside the gift shop. The walkways are all paved and cleared of ice and snow by volunteers to make Bentleyville Tour of Lights an accessible attraction for all. As the number of wheelchairs and strollers are limited, you may not be able to get one if you go on a Saturday. If that’s when you go, plan to bring your own.