River of Lights: The history behind an Albuquerque holiday tradition

River of Lights

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – The River of Lights draws big crowds with long lines of families weaving through the ABQ BioPark Botanic Garden. In 2017, the event set a record with more than 128,000 guests.

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In 1997, the first year of the River of Lights attracted 32,000 visitors. At the time, they only had 30 sculptures that were rented from a company in New York. “The first ones we rented were like a wobbly plastic and they had big bulbs on them like twinkle light bulbs and so it was just totally different,” said Julie Miller Rugg, New Mexico BioPark Society Executive Director.

The sculptures they rented were not cheap. “They paid about $80,000 to bring them in which is a lot of money when you consider that they were selling tickets for $3 for adults and a $1.50 for kids,” said Rugg. Their profit was also just $12,000.

Two years later, current BioPark Society Executive Director Rugg asked the big question that would change everything. “We started saying you know… we should be able to do this, why are we renting. Can’t we make these in house? Isn’t that something we can do?”

With a little inspiration, the next year, the crew made about 50 sculptures in-house. “The flat saguaro cactus was the very first sculpture we made,” said Rugg. “We leave it out there even though it’s not one of the best ones, it makes us happy because it was the first one.”

Now more than 20 years later, the River of Lights is New Mexico’s biggest light display. It’s also one of the BioPark Society’s biggest fundraisers and one of Albuquerque’s most beloved events.

The New Mexico BioPark Society and its team hope that as technology advances, so will the displays. Moving forward, they expect to add more light effects including more projections and maybe even interactive lights.

The River of Lights runs from Nov. 27 – Dec. 30 (closed on Dec. 24 and Dec. 25). Tickets will be sold in limited quantities and online only.

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