If Santa Had A Theme Park, This Would Be It!

Over the years, Festival of Trees has grown in size, made exciting additions, and expanded its status as one of the area’s most eagerly anticipated events of the year.

In the Beginning

Kennedy Krieger Institute’s first Festival of Trees was held on December 8, 1990, at Festival Hall, located at the Convention Center in downtown Baltimore. This first Festival featured an opening ceremony; celebrity lunch; over 100 decorated trees, wreaths, and table-top displays; a full-size antique carousel; shopping vendors; holiday entertainment; children’s activities; and of course, Santa. More than 25,000 people attended this 8-day winter wonderland, raising nearly $400,000 for the Institute.

From the City to the Cow Palace

In 1994, as Kennedy Krieger Institute prepared to celebrate its 5th Annual Festival of Trees, the location was changed from Festival Hall to the Cow Palace at the Maryland State Fairgrounds. This change allowed the event to grow substantially, offer easy light rail access and unlimited free parking, and attract more visitors from outside the city.

Around that time, Festival of Trees dates were changed from the second week of December to Thanksgiving week (Wednesday-Sunday), which allowed the event to capture holiday gift shoppers, people looking for holiday decorations, and families looking for a fun activity to kick off the holiday season. This change boosted attendance, which jumped to 50,000 that year! Six years later, the Festival schedule was changed to the three days following Thanksgiving. This Friday/Saturday/Sunday format continues to this day.

A Wonderland for Children and the Young at Heart

Over the years, there have been many new and exciting additions to Festival. Children now have the opportunity to not only sit on Santa’s lap, but also mail, have faxed and even call the big man in red directly with their wish lists while onsite at Festival of Trees. Santa has made his Festival grand entrance in a variety of ways, including a “reindeer” pony-drawn sleigh, a bicycle built for two, and even a helicopter directly from the North Pole! Additionally, children’s activities have grown substantially throughout the years to include a train ride, remote control car racing, a fun house, a boat ride and much more! 

Celebrities Join the Fun

Over the years Festival of Trees has featured a variety of entertainment acts, including the ever-popular Grammy-nominated children’s rock band Milkshake, the Dynamic Acrobats of China, world-renowned magician Tod Buchanan, and one year, nine Hawthorne White Bengal Tigers!

Many local celebrities made Festival of Trees part of their own holiday tradition, including former governors Martin O’Malley and William Donald Schaefer, movie actress Janet Leigh, former University of Maryland basketball coach Gary Williams, former Baltimore Ravens Matt Stover and Jamal Lewis, current Baltimore Raven Justin Tucker, Olympic gold medalist figure skater Dorothy Hamill, Major League Baseball and Baltimore Orioles Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr., and Baltimore Orioles Hall of Famer BJ Surhoff. They each graciously lent their time and talent through sports clinics, autograph sessions, and holiday story reading.

The Great Power Outage of 1997

Festival of Trees has had to endure its fair share of “challenges,” including the power outage of 1997. After a night of treacherous winds and storms, the Cow Palace lost electricity on Saturday morning at 4 a.m. Lainy LeBow-Sachs, former executive vice president for External Relations at the Institute, recalls, “After a little panicking, a lot of praying, and a phone call to the CEO of BG&E at his vacation home on the Eastern Shore, the power was finally restored and Festival was able to open its doors at 5 p.m. that evening.” As for Festival’s success that year? Festival of Trees 1997 still raised $150,000 more than the previous year!

Festival Today

Festival of Trees has grown significantly since its first year at Festival Hall, and is now the largest holiday event of its kind on the East Coast! The venue has tripled in size to more than 150,000 square feet of holiday fun and now features nearly 900 trees, wreaths and gingerbread houses decorated by local families, organizations and businesses. In 2018, over the course of three days, Festival of Trees attracted 50,000 attendees and raised nearly $1.2 million! In 2019, Festival of Trees celebrated its 30th year and welcomed its 1 millionth visitor!

Although Festival of Trees has evolved and grown over the years, the core mission of the event has stayed the same: to raise funds for children with disabilities, and their families, served by Kennedy Krieger Institute and to continue to increase awareness of the Institute’s work by creating a spectacular event for the greater Baltimore community to enjoy. Over the years, and across generations, Festival of Trees has become an eagerly anticipated tradition for many families throughout the region. Why not make it one of yours?

Crunching the Numbers

*Since 1990, Festival of Trees has…

  • Raised more than $25 million
  • Welcomed more than 1 million guests
  • Featured 6,545 decorated trees
  • Hung 4,370 wreaths
  • Showcased 1,693 gingerbread houses

*Totals include Festival of Trees 2021