Many people growing up in the north of England will be familiar with the phrase: “It’s like Blackpool Illuminations in here!” (probably used when someone’s left the lights on in a room….) but when was the last time you visited the “greatest free light show on Earth”? Let’s take a look through all things lights and explore the Blackpool Illuminations!
Blackpool Illuminations is an annual lights display held in the seaside resort of Blackpool, England. Traditionally running from September until early November, the length of the season was extended in 2020 and now runs until the start of January. Intended as a way to extend the popular summer season, over 3.5 million people visit the lights each year to wonder at the dazzling display of over 1 million light bulbs that stretch for six miles along the Blackpool Promenade.
The origins of the Illuminations date back to 1879 when eight carbon arc lamps illuminated the promenade in a display described as like “artificial sunshine”. Although initially planned as an early form of street lighting, this spectacle attracted many visitors to the resort as the concept of electric lighting was still a novel idea at the time. However, it wasn’t until 1912 that the illuminations as we see them today came to fruition when they ran in May to celebrate the first visit of a royal to Blackpool when Princess Louise opened a new section of the promenade. These lights were the brain-child of Charles Furness – an engineer at the “Blackpool Tramway and Electrical department”, who put forward the idea of creating a light display in-house that would be better than plans submitted by external contractors, as well as better than similar displays in rival resorts such as Southport. On 3rd May 1912, Blackpool Gazette described the display as a “Fairyland” featuring triumphal arches and masts on the new promenade as well as illuminated tram cars and buildings. With thousands of visitors visiting Blackpool to see the display, the council decided to run the display again that September. Local businesses such as the Tower, North Pier and Blackpool Pleasure Beach’s Casino building were offered a discounted electricity rate to encourage their participation in an illuminated display that spanned the Golden Mile.
The success of the illuminations was short-lived, as the First World War in 1914 put a stop to the display. This was despite Blackpool Council arguing that wartime rules of not having coastal lighting that could be seen from the sea only applied to the south of England…
By 1925, the illuminations had returned, with nearly 3 miles of lights running along Blackpool Promenade. The display continued to grow, and by 1927, railway companies were offering special half-day trips from the Midlands, London and Scotland with an estimated 1 million visitors coming to Blackpool to see the illuminations. 1929 saw the introduction of technology that allowed the sequencing of flashing lights which were used to add animation to tableaux display boards. This technique, which is still used today at the Bispham end of the illuminations, allowed the displays to tell stories by flashing segments of lights to create movement such as a waving character.
1934 was the first time that a ‘celebrity’ was featured in the event to mark the switching-on of the illuminations, with Lord Derby turning on the lights in an event that attracted over 150,000 people. Since then a range of famous faces have turned on the lights, including Westlife, The Muppets, the racing horse Red Rum, the cast of Coronation Street and two different Doctors from Doctor Who!
1952 saw the introduction of the half-a-mile-long “Kartoon Kollonade”, which featured an estimated 200 Disney characters including Donald Duck, Mickey and Minnie Mouse and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. This marked the start of a 36-year partnership between Blackpool Illuminations and Disney which allowed for the creation of numerous Disney-based displays, often used to help promote new or upcoming films such as Peter Pan, 101 Dalmations and Mary Poppins.
Partnerships with different film and TV brands have continued and now shows like Doctor Who, Sooty, Basil Brush and Spongebob Squarepants feature in the lights. Many of these characters can be seen in the illuminated Tableaux section – located at the northern end of the 6-mile stretch of the illuminations – near Bispham. This section – best viewed on foot – features classics such as Alice in Wonderland, Sooty, the Teddy Bears’ Picnic and the Egyptian tableaux. New for this year is ‘Lollies in Love with Light’ and ‘Light Around the World’ – which feature programmable LED lighting which continuously changes colour as you look at it. The largest tableau is the Pirate tableau. First created in 1996, it features a 150ft long galleon, as well as a range of swashbuckling pirates and a shark!
Illuminated trams have been a part of Blackpool since 1897 when 5 trams were lit up with coloured lights to mark the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria. This tradition has continued, with specially modified illuminated trams such as the ‘Hover Tram’, the Rocket and ‘HMS Blackpool’ travelling up and down the promenade. The iconic ‘Western Train’ initially operated from 1962 to 1999, however following a petition – with supporters including Sir Cliff Richard – the tram returned in 2008 and still offers travellers a tour of the illuminations. Passengers who want to board these trams must start their journey at the heritage tram stop opposite Blackpool Pleasure Beach, where a 1-hour round trip commences costing between £10-12 per adult. Tickets are available online.
Throughout the over four-month run of the illuminations, there is a range of different events to make each visit different. Before the official switch-on, the promenade is closed to cars and is taken over by bicycles in the ‘Ride the Lights’ event. In September, Blackpool hosts the World Firework Championships. Here the beach in front of the Tower hosts a spectacular firework display set to music, which is free to view.
Around October half-term the Lightpool festival offers a range of light-based activities. This includes a light-based art trail, which has previously incorporated installations within the Winter Gardens, as well as projections onto buildings around the town and also the imposing Odyssey statues – which stood next to the comedy carpet opposite the Tower. There are also live performances and events as part of the Lightpool celebrations – hosted in the Tower Ballroom and Winter Gardens.
Near Christmas, the Tower Festival Headland area gets taken over with ‘Christmas By The Sea’ an event which boasts a free outdoor skating rink, Christmas-themed fairground rides, festive food and drink and the occasional snow flurry!
Blackpool Tower itself is also transformed throughout the illuminations season, with a range of projection-mapped shows on the Grade 1 listed building. These spectacular shows integrate with the Tower’s decorative lighting and ‘beating heart’ decoration, adding an extra level to the display. Shows include Nickelodeon Projection Show, The History of Blackpool, Dance as well as exclusive shows for Lightpool!
Top tips for visiting Blackpool Illuminations:
1. Do not miss the tableaux!
Many people start the South section of the illuminations (near Pleasure Beach) and head home before getting to the end. If you start at the North end of the display (near Bispham), you’ll get to see one of the most impressive parts of the display!
2. Get out of the car and walk.
Whilst the whole 6-mile stretch of the Illuminations might be a bit long for some, an excellent shorter walk idea is to park up in Bispham. Here you can marvel at the magnificent tableaux on foot as you walk down towards the Tower. On the way, you’ll pass the Gynn Square roundabout – which this year hosts the spectacular ‘Spitfire Island’! By the time you’ve reached the Tower, you can stop off for a drink (and maybe some classic seaside doughnuts) and then watch one of the spectacular projection shows on the front of the Tower, before heading back North (maybe by tram if your legs get too tired!)
3. Visit mid-week to avoid the crowds.
Whether walking or driving, it’s always easiest to go on a quieter day if possible and avoid the crowds. Weekdays are usually pretty quiet, with Fridays and Saturdays being the busier evenings.
4. Check the switch on and off times.
There’s nothing worse than driving through the illuminations in early September and having them turn off before you reach the end! Check online to see when the lights are turned on and off.
5. Dress for the weather.
The wind from the Irish Sea can get pretty breezy, so be sure to wrap up if heading out of the car to see the lights on foot.
6. Don’t forget the food!
No visit to the seaside is complete without some fish and chips, doughnuts or an ice cream! Luckily Blackpool hosts a range of fantastic fish and chip shops, as well as some great restaurants. Then to finish, why not treat yourself to some doughnuts, or perhaps an ice cream at the famous Notariannis – after all, it’s never too cold for an ice cream!
With a rich history spanning over 100 years, the illuminations demonstrate an ingenious way of extending the main summer season, allowing Blackpool to stay busy even when other seaside towns are starting to buckle down for the winter. With recent extensions and continued investment, the future looks bright for this British seaside staple.
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