'Christmas came early' is a classic writing cliche, but in Sevier County -- Winterfest actually did come early. Well... later than in years past, but earlier than planned for this year.
A few months ago, the county announced it would be kicking off the seasonal celebration later than usual on November 22 as not to overlap with the Smoky Mountain Harvest Festival and ensure fall in the Smokies looked seasonal.
However, that decision might not have been the most popular, as many said they preferred seeing the Christmas lights up earlier, and some said they timed yearly vacations in advance around the typical earlier November Winterfest start.
"We've had so many people tell us, 'Please, turn the lights on.' Our guests especially. So, it's all about making our guests happy," Pigeon Forge tourism director Leon Downey said.
Given the weather has been looking and feeling more like December than November lately, tourism leaders decided to not wait any longer and turned on the lights a little early this weekend in Sevierville, Pigeon Forge, and Gatlinburg.
This year's Winterfest is celebrating a 30-year milestone. Local leaders credit the festival for making the area a winter destination, when 30 years ago winter's arrival and Dollywood's former October closure would have turned the cities into ghost towns.
"We wanted to be able to keep our employees working year-round, and that's what Winterfest has accomplished. In my opinion, it's one of the most successful things the three cities have ever done together is take an off season and turn it into a major shoulder season," Downey said.
Displays of more than 15 million lights in the cities, plus 5 million shining in Dollywood, attract tourists to the area each year. This year, the festival is running until Presidents Day weekend in mid-February.
On Friday, Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies lit up its tree to celebrate the formal start of Winterfest. Folks gathered around and sang 'Jingle Bells' before confetti shot out everywhere during the lighting.