The first year of The Northern Express was a startling success, considering it was such a new event. What started as an idea to reignite holiday cheer in a post-pandemic world ended in nearly 30,000 visitors over the course of three weekends in December 2021.
“Of course, the first weekend, we were figuring out a lot behind the scenes, and it continued to progress from there,” says Wynne Reece, the founder of The Northern Express. Undercover in a Rudolph costume or simply walking about, Reece overheard people’s unguarded opinions. “There was fantastic feedback on things that could be added,” she says.
Some tried-and-true favorites will be back this year, including a decorated Christmas tree forest, holiday llama visits, Santa sessions and more, but there are also new attractions coming to the immersive holiday experience.
This year, The Holiday Express will be more centralized, Reece notes. Rather than the 6 acre spread of last year, only 3 to 4 acres will be in play for the 2022 event. Accessibility was a factor, but not the only one in mind, as Reece says her team also wants to create a more immersive atmosphere, keeping all of the activities closer at hand.
There will also be more characters roaming about the event this year. “People loved the characters and really wanted to engage with them,” Reece says. “So not only are we adding characters to the character crew, but we're also designating cabins or houses where you can go and visit [them] at a certain time.”
One of the biggest pieces of feedback Reece heard last year was the need for kid-friendly activities for the middle school set. “We're adding the Elf Obstacle Course, which we're pretty excited about. We are also working on some interactive outdoor activities,” she says.
Bingo was a huge hit last year and—while designated bingo hours will return—a new bingo game has also been added to the mix. “We’ve created these really cool scavenger hunt bingo boards that people can pick up as soon as they get there,” Reece says. Once you get a bingo on your scavenger hunt board, you can take it to the Sugar Shack for a sweet treat.
The Northern Express is also bringing more inclusion to its holiday offerings this year. Hanukkah overlaps with the last weekend of the event, and Reece and her team have been working with members of the Jewish community to bring a celebration of lights to the festivities. “We're going to incorporate Hanukkah into story hour, into the Elf Academy,” she says, noting there will also be Hanukkah inflatables and a celebration of lights. “We're pretty excited about how that is coming to fruition,” she says.
Reece says she grew up captivated by the festive atmosphere of Minneapolis’ Holidazzle Parade and Dayton’s eighth floor Holiday Show. The Northern Express is her effort to bring those magical memories to Excelsior and neighboring communities.
So, what was her favorite part last year?
“I had to put on the Rudolph costume because the first day, 15 minutes before we were getting our team ready to hit the ground, we got a message about COVID outbreak, and we weren't going to have staff … And it was the first moment that a little kid saw me and lit up and just came running and gave me the biggest hug and I was like, ‘That’s what all of this is about.’ I remember it from being a kid and that was like, ‘Can we ever recreate that magic?’ And in that moment I was like, ‘We just recreated that.’”