The History of Festival
of Trees

Throughout the years, Festival of Trees has grown in size, made exciting additions, conquered "disasters" and maintained its status as one of the area's most eagerly anticipated events of the year. If Santa had a theme park, this would be it!

In the Beginning 

The 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.

The Festival of Trees committee was very excited to see how the Baltimore community had embraced their new holiday fundraiser. For the next three years, Festival maintained its success with the addition of various attractions and events, including a children's Secret Santa Shop, a Teddy Bear Tea, Scout Night Sing-a-long, Gospel Night, an international village featuring holiday celebrations from around the world, and designer gingerbread houses.

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, the dates of Festival of Trees 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 did not dampen attendance, which skyrocketed to 50,000 that year! Six years later, Festival was held during the weekend after Thanksgiving, compacting it into 3 days, which remains our format today.

A Wonderland for Children

Over the years, there have been many new and exciting additions to Festival. Children have had the opportunity to not only sit on Santa's lap, but also fax, mail, and even call the big man in red directly with their wish lists. 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 now include a train ride, remote control car racing, a petting zoo, pony rides, and much more!

Celebrities Join the Fun

Festival of Trees has featured a variety of entertainment acts, including the ever popular 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 have taken the time to make Festival of Trees part of their own holiday tradition, including Governor Martin O'Malley, former Governor William Donald Schaeffer, movie actress Janet Leigh, University of Maryland basketball coach Gary Williams, former Baltimore Raven Matt Stover and Jamal Lewis, 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 have each graciously lent their time and talent through sports clinics, autograph sessions, and holiday story reading to the children.

The Great Power Outage of 1997

Festival of Trees has had to endure its fair share of "disasters," 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, 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 more than 800 trees, wreaths, and gingerbread houses decorated by local families, organizations, and businesses. In 2014, over the course of three days, Festival of Trees drew in more than 50,000 attendees and raised a record-breaking $1.18 million!

Although Festival of Trees has gone through a number of changes, the core mission of the event has stayed the same: to raise funds for the children with disabilities served by Kennedy Krieger Institute and to continue to increase awareness of the Institute by creating a spectacular event for the greater Baltimore community to enjoy. Over the years, 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 $17 million
  • Welcomed over 700,000 guests
  • Featured 3,807 decorated trees
  • Displayed 2,119 wreaths
  • Showcased 1,089 gingerbread houses