FORT WAYNE — As a “thank you” to patrons who made this year’s Fantasy of Lights so successful, Blue Jacket is closing this year by bringing back their popular “Pay What You Want Night.” The event is in its final night on New Year’s Eve and will be open from 6-9 p.m.
The annual event, in its 24th year, broke its previous record of 20,680 cars enjoying the display in 2017, to topping out this year at 21,777 cars, with an estimated 109,000 people participating in the event over the last month and a half.
“We have been so thrilled with the attendance this year, so blessed to be a part of a community that makes our event a part of their annual holiday tradition,” said Brad Saleik, Blue Jacket’s Director of Marketing. “And not only just the amount of people in attendance, but the stories that were shared with us throughout the year blew us away. Moments that are so intimate in the lives of some of these people that we were allowed to share. It’s special, just like the event.”
This year alone, there were three marriage proposals (they all said yes!) and one family who was surprised with a return home from their military dad and husband, who coordinated the surprise with Blue Jacket staff to make it all happen at the Franke Park Pavilion on Dec. 24.
Blue Jacket is especially surprised at this year’s turnout with so little snow over the course of the event.
“Historically, when we see a light snow, people come out because they get that sense of winter and Christmas. We find attendance usually does better on those nights because the lights kind of go along with that,” said Kevin Pothast, Director of Operations for the organization and key organizer for the Fantasy of Lights event.
The event features 116 displays, 12 more than in 2017, and just short of 300,000 LED lights through the Franke Park two-mile route.
The event helps to fund Blue Jacket’s Career Academy, a two-week, 40-hour training program in which Blue Jacket provides job-readiness training. Following graduation from the program, Blue Jacket provides transitional jobs, job placement, and pre- and post-placement services including education, skills and interest assessments, and personal and professional development.
The Career Academy was highlighted this year when Blue Jacket decided that, instead of using the 450 volunteers to staff the event as they have done in previous years, they hired 17 graduates of their program to work the event.
“This year we put our money where our mouth is.” said Tony Hudson, Executive Director of Blue Jacket. “We're in business to train and employ people, so here's this wonderful two-month opportunity to be able to employ our Blue Jacket clients.”