Four wheels instead of hooves will now power wagon rides through the annual Winterhaven Festival of Lights.

The change was prompted by safety concerns expressed to event organizers by one of the wagon-ride vendors, Robin Dolezal, the festival’s chairman said in a recent post on the festival’s website.

“The board and committee have agonized over the decision to replace the mules and horses,” the post said. “The risk associated with the livestock and someone’s life is far greater than the presence of the livestock.”

The committee met with an equestrian specialist and was told an accident was inevitable if the rides continued to operate the way they do, the post said.

The specialist recommended keeping the animals separated from pedestrians, Dolezal said in an email.

“A common way to do this is using barricades,” Dolezal said. “Unfortunately, to do that would cost the festival even more money and it would be a nightmare to the Winterhaven residents as they wouldn’t be able to get in and out of their driveways with the barricades running up and down the streets.”

Julie Wycoff and her husband have owned Winterhaven Hayrides for 13 years.

She said she’s “heartbroken” by the change, but with attendance increasing over the years, it’s become more of a challenge to navigate through the packed streets.

“It’s just too close quarters,” Wycoff said. “And it’s not really fair to have the animals working side by side with the people four inches from them; as they go by people reach out and touch them. People stand right next to the wagon. They roll their baby carriages forward so they can see the mules.”

Two of Wycoff’s employees walk in front of the lead wagon to help clear a path. They have whistles and flashlights and shout out “Happy holidays!” to alert people to the coming wagons, but some people still don’t move out of the way, Wycoff said.

She said the employees often have to clear strollers out of the wagon’s path because people aren’t paying attention.

“They’re completely distracted. It’s beautiful; they’re looking at all the lights,” Wycoff said.

And even though the wagons are equipped with brakes, it’s still possible for the mules to move side to side, Wycoff said.

“We haven’t had an accident, but why wait for that to change?” she said.

For 35 years, Mark White’s company, Holiday Hayrides, has operated wagon rides pulled by livestock.

“We’re gonna do what the homeowners association wants us to do and I’ll comply with whatever they want, but in my opinion the livestock is the only way to go,” White said. “It adds to the romance and the nostalgia of the festival.”

White doesn’t think exchanging the livestock for vehicles will make the event any safer.

“I’ve been in there for 35 years, and I’ve had zero injuries to participants and we’ve yet to damage anybody,” White said. “I think we’ve got to address crowd control more than anything else. Even with mechanical, we still have to be very cautious and really make sure that we don’t hurt anybody.”

Both vendors will participate in this year’s festival.

White’s wagons will be tractor-drawn, and Wycoff’s will be pulled by 1970s Jeeps. Both are working on tweaks to the exhaust systems that will allow fumes to escape from the back of the wagons and not the vehicles.

Wycoff believes the vehicles are safer than the animals.

“There’s only one brain driving,” she said. “With a team you have your brain, and then the animals, of course, they’re all making their own decisions. So if one’s nervous about something they may be pushing on the other animals and making the other ones concerned.”

People who have made a wagon-drawn trip through the festive neighborhood expressed a mix of shock, disappointment and understanding over the decision on the festival’s Facebook page.

Some commenters said they would no longer attend the annual event over the change, and others praised the board for its efforts to keep the festival safe.

“I think most festival attendees will miss the animals. However, we have received quite a bit of support for this tough decision. No one wants the festival to be marred with an accident or death,” Dolezal said.

Contact reporter Veronica Cruz at or 573-4224.