If you go
What: Holiday Festival of LightsWhen: Friday-Dec. 31Where: James Island County Park, 871 Riverland DrivePrice: $12 per vehicle Sunday-Thursday, $15 Friday-Saturday (16-30 guests, $40 per vehicle; 31-plus guests, $100 per vehicle)For more info: 795-4386 or www.holidayfestivaloflights.com
Two million light bulbs — that’s where the Holiday Festival of Lights organizers lost count in their tally of the glowing orbs of cheer that decorate James Island County Park for two months each winter.
“Two million and one!” corrects Jim Murray, a volunteer at the park since the mid-’90s.
Three nights a week during the festival, Murray dons the costume of Wattson the Giant Red Light Bulb, greeting children as they explore the Winter Wonderland and Santa’s Village.
“The best case scenario is that they grab my hand and say, ‘I love you and I want to take you home,’ ” laughs Murray. “The worst case is that they scream and run away. But really, it’s a hoot.”
On a recent evening, Murray was one of a few dozen volunteers stringing strands of lights over bushes and trees along the three-mile driving route that now features over 750 shining displays.
Among the other volunteers are Dave Striebich and Beth Brannan, a St. Petersburg Beach, Fla., couple in their third year as members of the Campground Host Club. Fourteen couples spend nearly three months at the park beginning Oct. 1, collectively volunteering more than 4,100 hours in exchange for an RV campsite and a universal pass to Charleston’s museums, plantations and attractions.
“We meet some great people and have a lot of fun together,” Striebich said of the experience. “Our job for five weeks is screwing and unscrewing, swapping out light bulbs on the displays.”
In the month leading up to the festival’s opening weekend, around 200,000 faded and worn-out bulbs are replaced, ensuring that each display is as vibrant and colorful as possible.
The park’s staff gets to work even earlier, hauling displays out of storage trailers and a warehouse dubbed “Santa’s Workshop” in late August. And after the new year, they’ll spend two months breaking the displays back down.
Hurricane Hugo put a damper on James Island County Park’s plans to open in 1989, meaning that the first Festival of Lights debuted with the grand opening of the park.
Featuring 18 displays purchased from a builder in West Virginia, the 700-plus displays created since have all been made by chief light show supervisor Rich Raab.
Although Raab keeps a low profile and declined to be interviewed for this story, park General Manager Randy Woodard credits him as the “true magician” behind the festival’s success.
“Rich likes to be the guy in the background when the lights come on. He’s a true creative spirit and a master electrician and artist, and he lives and breathes light show,” Woodard attests. “All year long, he’s refurbishing old displays and constantly creating the next attraction for the next year’s show. He’s really a genius.”
Raab draws inspiration from coloring books, nursery rhymes and even local children. Last year, the park began a contest for kids 12 and under to design a new display, resulting in a moving Ferris wheel that debuted in 2011. This year’s winning entry depicts Santa’s elves creating a light display of the state flag.
Once a new design is determined, Raab transfers a line drawing to a computer and projects it onto the floor of his workshop, where he traces the outline in chalk. He and his team then bend, cut and weld rebar into the design’s shape before affixing the appropriate colored lights to the structure.
It takes between six and 10 weeks to create a new display.
Holiday is a term used loosely when it comes to the displays’ subject matter. Driving the slow loop brings awestruck children of all ages through a pre-historic cluster of dinosaurs (with an erupting volcano), a flock of wading flamingoes and plenty of Charleston imagery, including St. Michael’s Church, the Morris Island lighthouse and the 30-foot-tall juxtaposition of the new and old Cooper River bridges.
Of course, there are also cartwheel-turning gingerbread men, Santa practicing his golf swing and an elf barely escaping a bite from a hungry alligator.
The result is a light show that frequently ranks among lists of the Top 10 in the country, alongside those in bigger cities like New Orleans and Atlanta. It’s been voted a Top 20 event by the Southeastern Tourism Society, receiving attention from The Travel Channel and Southern Living magazine.
“It definitely keeps us going through the winter,” said Woodard. “When most campgrounds around the country are ghost towns, we’re packed for the season.”
A local tradition
Last year, the Festival of Lights drew 225,000 people during its two-month run, accounting for about a third of the park’s annual attendance. It’s grown to encompass far more than just a driving tour, as well.
Sand sculptor Damon Farmer returned to the park this year to spend nine days carving a sequel to last year’s “Scuba Santa,” featuring St. Nick taking presents to little mermaid girls.
With his tool belt of tiny knives and scrapers, Farmer begins with 50 tons of sand, held in place by wooden boards wrapped around the giant pile. When he’s finished, the wood will be gone, leaving an intricate sculpture of impermanent art behind.
“It’s job security — planned obsolescence,” said Farmer, shrugging off the notion that seeing his work swept away is a bittersweet aspect of his chosen medium. “A cubic yard of sand weighs about a ton-and-a-half, so there’s no moving it.”
This year’s design features Santa picking up his (abundant) mail, reading a long list from one hopeful child while his elves pack up gifts into bags behind him. It’s one of the first things visitors will see upon parking at the drive’s halfway point.
After strolling through the Enchanted Forest Walking Trail, Santa’s Village features an 18-animal carousel as well as fire pits for roasting marshmallows, oversize greeting cards, the chance to take a photograph with Santa and a portable climbing wall. In the Winter Wonderland, sweets and burgers are available from vendors like Donner’s Delights. And although it may be tempting, there’s no eating allowed at the gingerbread house competition.
Nearby, two shops feature collectibles and holiday gifts that include the festival’s annual collectible ornament, featuring a Charleston Single House for 2012.
Finally, for an up-close look at the light displays, climb aboard the festival train for a tour around the festival.
On certain nights (available at the park’s website), special events include visits with Mrs. Claus, outdoor movies, live music and ice sculpture competitions.
After the show begins, volunteers like campground host Striebich transition from bulb replacement to manning the actual attractions, including conducting the train rides. Staff remains on call — it’s not uncommon for confused (real) deer to knock over a display, including the lit-up grazing (fake) deer along the roadway.
At the end of each evening, it requires a full hour to power down the 2,500 breakers circulating electricity to each display, including new lights that are timed to move with accompanying music.
Over the course of its 23-year history, the Holiday Festival of Lights has ushered cars with tags from all 50 states through its gates. Because the festival charges entry by the car, not by the person, it’s a great excuse to gather the family and pack in tightly for a visit to a magical, illuminated wonderland. Just make sure that everybody gets a good view through the windows, and don’t forget your gloves for cupping a mug of hot chocolate around the bonfire.
Even dogs get their day with Santa.×
It takes months to get things set up for the Holiday Festival of Lights, and months to take it all down.×
The carousel lights up the night.×
A ride at the Winter Carnival.×
Grab a stick and roast some marshmallows.×
Folks can take a train-ride tour of the displays.×
A peacock display.×
The “Hickory Dickory Dock” display.×
The St. Michael’s Church display.×
The Morris Island Lighthouse display.×