There are a dozen nights in December that we anticipate record crowds in the downtown area. —Jason Mathis, Downtown Alliance
SALT LAKE CITY — With the Christmas shopping season fast approaching, downtown Salt Lake City is gearing up for what is hoped will be a successful holiday retail season.
This week marks the beginning of the holiday festivities in the central business district. On Thursday, City Creek Center launched its inaugural holiday program, complete with lights, choreographed fountain displays and the arrival of the "jolly old elf" himself.
"We wanted to have a program that would respect the existing traditions but would also create new traditions for families," said City Creek general manager Linda Wardell. "Our objective was to create a program that would bring people here from all across the Intermountain West region."
City Creek Center now displays a 30-foot tall Christmas tree, interactive storybook lanterns, giant wreaths and live storytellers who will entertain visitors throughout the holidays.
Smiling parents and anxious children visiting the shopping center Thursday night packed the plaza around Santa's Lantern awaiting the arrival of the man in red. No one in the bustling crowd seemed bothered by the cold as they waited, snapping pictures and visiting with the elves, storybook characters and City Creek employees passing out light-up wands that would usher in Santa's arrival.
As the crowd cheered and chanted "Santa! Santa!" in unison, waving their flashing wands, Santa appeared, disappeared and reappeared overhead, following the flash of fireworks along the rooftop until he suddenly materialized on a platform above the plaza.
Seven-year-old Annselina Tuaefe of Salt Lake City said she could think of only one explanation for Santa's astounding feat: magic.
Annselina and her three brothers proudly showed off their wands, explaining how the lights helped guide Santa to Salt Lake City.
"The fireworks were blooming. … He was on the roof, and then he came over here," she said, pointing.
Wardell said Thursday's events at City Creek exceeded expectations as delighted visitors flocked in.
"We think today has been the start of a wonderful new tradition for our families and for all of our friends in downtown Salt Lake City," she said.
Macy's department store put a holiday sparkle on Main Street with the unveiling of its giant candy window displays Thursday night, reviving a downtown tradition. The candy statues depicted Santa, snowflakes and the Nutcracker, as well as Utah symbols of a beehive and a downtown snow globe.
Nathan and Nichelle Jensen said they were looking for the entertainment like Thursday's events when they chose to live downtown. The couple took their 2-year-old son to City Creek Center for Santa's arrival and to see the window displays, though the toddler was mildly distressed he wouldn't be allowed to sample the candy.
Starting Saturday, The Gateway will launch its holiday program featuring Kurt Bestor and songs by One Voice Children's Choir, as well as the "Starry, Starry Night" Light Spectacular, with more than 600,000 lights dancing to holiday music choreographed with the Olympic Legacy Fountain.
Shows will run nightly at 5 p.m., 6 p.m., 7 p.m. and 8 p.m. from Nov. 18 to Jan. 1.
For traditionalists, Temple Square becomes a wonderland of festive lights and Nativity scenes beginning later this month. Visitors can enjoy the lights, watch the Christmas story unfold outside the South Visitor's Center or listen to local musicians perform.
From Nov. 26 to Dec. 31, the Christmas lights, displays and performances will begin on Temple Square with special activities and performances Dec. 29-31 to celebrate the new year. All "Christmas on Temple Square" events and activities are free.
With the opening of City Creek Center, economic expectations for downtown have also increased.
"We are attracting 16.2 million visits a year to the City Creek Center, but when you look at what that means for anybody else operating a business, that is a marketing opportunity," explained City Creek marketing director Dee Brewer.
Thus far, retailers at the new shopping center have exceeded their sales and traffic expectations, with an economic impact that has been significant, Brewer said.
Jason Mathis, executive director of the Downtown Alliance, said huge crowds are expected as visitors from throughout the region come to experience the city's traditional holiday programs as well as the new programs.
"To accommodate the crowds, (we're) hiring a trolley car we are calling 'the Jingle Bus' to ferry people between the malls and Gallivan Plaza," he said. That service will begin the day after Thanksgiving.
New this year will be a holiday Christmas village on weekends as a supplement to the ice rink at Gallivan Plaza. Additional police will also patrol downtown and assist with traffic during the peak holiday times, he added.
"There are a dozen nights in December that we anticipate record crowds in the downtown area," Mathis said.
The increased interest is forecast to bring significant revenues to city businesses as well.
As for City Creek, the retail and entertainment hub is 98 percent occupied, with an Apple Store scheduled to open on Saturday — replacing the soon to be closed Gateway location. Wardell called the addition an "early Christmas surprise" from Santa.
"This is an opportunity for other retailers, and you're seeing that as the retail footprint is growing down Main Street and throughout the central business district," Brewer said.
"This tide is lifting all boats," he said. "The downtown retail corridor has really been restored on Main Street."
Contributing: McKenzie Romero