The festival, a city tradition that has long been held at Constitution Plaza, expanded this year to include Bushnell Park, and guests expected to be dazzled.
Instead, they saw a display with fewer lights and restricted access to Santa. The disappointment has led to a Facebook campaign to move the event back to the plaza.
"Some people were underwhelmed because they were expecting to see twinkle lights on the trees like we have at Constitution Plaza. We didn't say it was going to be exactly the same," said Kate Bolduc, chief executive officer of the Greater Hartford Arts Council, which organized the event. "We felt it was more important to try to change the expectation and make it more dramatic and theatrical."
This year's festival began at Constitution Plaza but moved over to Bushnell Park for a tree-lighting ceremony. Although the plaza still boasted much of its traditional lighting, twinkle lights - which blink or give the illusion of movement - were limited to Bushnell's carousel, organizers said. The park instead featured different colored spotlights and search lights that stretched to the sky.
"I was surprised when people expressed disappointment," Bolduc said. "I guess people were expecting more of the same and that's not what we were trying to accomplish. We wanted a new element of lighting at the park."
Twinkle lights weren't prominent at Bushnell because organizers didn't want to hang them on the park's historic trees, city spokeswoman Sarah Barr said. Organizers also said they feared that birds and squirrels would chew through the wires.
"Because the park is home to wildlife, in the past, some creatures ate through the wires," Bolduc said. "We were concerned about birds getting electrocuted."
Bushnell Park has hosted its share of holiday light shows, however, accommodating up to 300,000 lights for celebrations in the 1990s.
"I don't know of any rule or prohibition saying you can't put lights on the trees," said Joseph Williams, president of the Bushnell Park Foundation. "I would say it's possible to put them on without damaging the trees."
Dan Parrott, an arborist who runs the Monroe-based Connecticut Arborists Inc., said that holiday lights typically don't ruin trees.
"I've never seen any harm come to trees from doing anything with holiday lights," he said. "I've never seen that kind of illumination cause a fire."
Confusion also arose Friday over a visit from Santa Claus, who at first met only with children of the event's corporate sponsors.
Years ago, Bolduc said, Santa's visits during the Festival of Light were open to the public and took place in the G. Fox building. But once the building closed, space in other venues was limited and the visits were offered only to children of corporate sponsors.
This year, however, demand for the visits was so high that they were opened to all children.
"It was opened up to the general public, but we could only let 50 children in at a time," Bolduc said. The visits were held in the Pump House Gallery at the park.
The festival was expanded, at least in part, because of decreased funding for the event at its Constitution Plaza location, Bolduc said.
"The funders wanted to see something different," she said.
Loyalists to the festival's longtime venue see it differently. A Facebook page titled "Return the Hartford Festival of Lights to Constitution Plaza" was created last weekend after Friday's opening. The page already has nearly 300 followers.
"I was so incredibly disappointed by this year's sad display," one person wrote. "A visit to the Plaza has been a tradition in my family for over 30 years, and I hope it will continue to be in future years."
Bolduc said it's too soon to say if the celebration will include Bushnell Park next year.
"Nothing is set in stone," she said. "It's a work in progress."
Despite the negative feedback, this year's opening ceremony attracted 4,000 to 5,000 people, according to Hartford police. It also gave downtown businesses a boost, with crowds trickling into restaurants afterward.
"While the change of venue was met with mixed reactions, the reality is that there were a lot of people here in the downtown," said Mike Zaleski, head of the Downtown Business Improvement District. "That was good for the restaurants and bars."
Organizers plan to add more lights to Bushnell Park and along the riverfront in preparation for the Dec. 10 opening of the park's skating rink, Bolduc said. The rink will be open through Jan. 6 and feature free skating and free skate rentals.
Santa will make additional appearances at the park on Dec. 10, 11 and 12 that will be open to the public.