Back in 2001, Esko resident Nathan Bentley decided to decorate his home with some Christmas lights he picked up. Over the next few years, his light display grew and became more elaborate. In 2004 they starting calling the display “Bentleyville” and people from all over the Northland would drive out to his new home in Cloquet to experience Bentleyville first hand. Nathan decided to create a true Christmas experience with Bentleyville and added firepits for visitors to gather around roasting marshmallows, and a Cookie House with free cookies, hot apple cider, and coffee.
As Bentleyville grew, so did the traffic in Nathan’s rural neighborhood. Parking lots were constructed on neighboring properties and visitors were bused to the display. By year 5 Bentleyville 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.
So, in 2009, Bentleyville did just that. The Bentleyville Tour of Lights has called Bayfront Park “home” ever since, 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.
When Nathan agreed to move Bentleyville to Duluth he wanted the spirit of the display to remain the same. So Bentleyville continues to be a free attraction to visitors and you can still find free cookies, cider, and coffee available (plus cocoa and popcorn) and 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. In addition, parking is widely available and shuttle buses free. There is a $5 cost for parking in the designated Bentleyville parking lots, but this contribution helps keep the lights going year after year.
This year I trekked down to Bentleyville with my family on an unusually warm Saturday evening. Thanks to the temps (in the mid-40s!) Bentleyville was bustling even from the moment it opened. Our first mistake with this venture was going when we did- right around 5:30 PM. I cannot tell you how many people were there, but my husband described it as being worse than Disney World as far as lines go. At least at Disney, they’ve had years of crowd and line control experience to keep things moving. Bentleyville seemed ill-equipped to handle this massive influx of people all at once. We were gridlocked. We also came down to Bentleyville in two cars and couldn’t find parking in the same place, so we separated from the rest of our group. With so many people, cell service couldn’t handle the influx and we were unable to reconnect with the rest of our group.
After standing in a line that seemed to stretch about 2 city blocks, we ended up moving around to a different entrance (near the park and the exterior gift shop). There were fewer people to get in, but once inside we found ourselves once again moving at a snail’s pace.
Forget seeing Mrs. Claus in her bakery. Forget cocoa and cookies. No way we were going to try to get a marshmallow for roasting. Even Santa was going to take too much time. The lines to get to those would have meant we’d be there for hours. As it was, we were there for almost two and a half hours and all we did was walk through the tunnels and view the light displays. We went as quickly through the display as we could and then went home. I wasn’t even able to take photos or videos during this visit simply due to the massive number of people that were everywhere.
I made these observations as we left around 8 PM that the entrance was a lot quieter there were no lines to get in, shorter lines for cocoa and cookies, and the line through the tunnels was also free-moving. I contemplated doubling back and doing it all again to get the footage I needed for this article, but my kids were tired so we decided to try again mid-week.
So, on another warm evening, with temps in the upper 30s, this one a Wednesday, we drove back down to Duluth to attempt the Bentleyville experience once again. This time, there was plenty of parking, no lines to get in, short lines for all of the experiences, and seeing Santa Claus himself only took about 30 minutes. My kids expressed numerous times how much fun they were having compared to the other time. They sipped their hot cocoa while eating cookies and getting hugs from some half a dozen costumed characters. They stood in line for less than five minutes to get a candy cane and a hug from Mrs. Claus. They could see and enjoy all of the amazing light displays, even stopping a few times in the light tunnels to marvel at a favorite light. That was something you wouldn’t dare do on Saturday.
The popcorn line was the longest, maybe five minutes. That just meant our popcorn was freshly popped with a drizzle of butter. There was no line for the marshmallows and plenty of room around the firepits for everyone to roast some warm, gooey goodness. My kids got to dance around the open spaces, laugh, and enjoy themselves. I didn’t feel the need to have them constantly holding someone’s hand for fear they’d be swept up in a sea of people and difficult to find again. It was an extremely lovely evening for all of us. We capped off the night with a visit with the big guy himself- Santa Claus. While I do think Bentleyville, with all of its popularity, could get a real bearded Santa, the one they did have was patient and kind with the kids. He took the time to talk to my kids, pose for a picture, and then wish them a Merry Christmas. As we left, my kids got their first Bentleyville hat, a souvenir I’m told kids look forward to collecting each year they visit Bentleyville (each child under age 10 who visits Santa gets a free knit hat of very nice quality).
The whole experience cost us exactly $5, which was spent on parking. Free parking is located all over downtown Duluth and you can easily get to Bentleyville through the skywalks, but we chose to park in the lot and support Bentleyville with a little $5 donation. We also dropped a few bucks in the donation bins inside Bentleyville and my kids donated to each Wishing Well we passed. Arguably, the two hats probably had a greater value than what we donated, and all donations are optional. For families needing an affordable or even free experience to bring some Christmas joy to their families, Bentleyville will deliver. However, here are some bits of advice that I have learned from my first Bentleyville experience with my family:
- 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. I’m not sure how often they change them, but it was fun watching some kids searching for their names on the list and getting excited to see that they were on the Nice List.
- Don’t go on Saturday. Bentleyville has a great Crowd-O-Meter on their Visitor Guide that will give you an idea of the busiest and slowest days. My experience was that it was worth it to go mid-week.
- OK, if Saturday is the only chance you have to go, plan to arrive after 7 PM or go on a colder day.
- 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, you get the longest line over with first, and then you can really enjoy the rest of the Bentleyville experience.
- Bring a stroller, even if you don’t have stroller-aged children. It’s a great way to store extra layers. Remember, the temperature by Lake Superior can be dramatically different than elsewhere in Duluth. I started my kids in snow pants and quickly shed layers thanks to the unseasonably high temperatures. It’s always wise to layer when going to Bentleyville because no child likes being cold and no parent likes hearing their child go on about how cold they are.
- However, Bentleyville actually has strollers and wheelchairs available to visitors (first come, first served) right by the gift shop as you first enter from the main parking lot. This was extremely nice for my mom who walks with a cane but found she could keep up with us better in a wheelchair.
- Bring some money to donate, if you can. Bentleyville continues to run year after year thanks to the generous donations it receives. Your donation goes to help maintain the lights and keep the experience free for those who need it.
What started as an at-home light display has turned into Duluth’s premiere Christmas-time attraction. It really is fun for the whole family (usually), so if you’re in Duluth anytime from mid-November until December 26th, plan to make a visit to Bentleyville to experience the magic yourself.
Listen as Jaye and Martha maneuver the crowds during Bentleyville 2019 in episode 16 of Exploring the North Shore Podcast: