SOUTHEASTERN NC—Though all the tickets may be sold out to Airlie Gardens’ annual holiday wonderland, Enchanted Airlie, destinations within Wilmington proper, or a short drive outside of town, have decked the halls with 10,000, 300,000, even 1 million lights in the merriment of the season.
Below are four stops you can add to your Christmas Lights Tour 2020, among the other hot spots (Mike’s Farm hayride in Beaulaville, NC, or Lake Linda’s Christmas Lights in Hampstead) and go-to neighborhoods (Kings Grant, Farrington Farms, Sunset Park, Pine Valley, The Embler’s home at 4763 Navigation Road in Southport, docks along the Intracoastal Waterway).
Leland in Lights
Founders Park, 113 Town Hall Dr.
For a decade, the outlying suburb of Wilmington celebrated Christmas by merely lighting the town tree. As the area has grown, so have its celebrations.
The Town of Leland rebranded Founders Park in 2018 and in 2019 launched Leland in Lights.
“This is fairly new, but already very popular,” town spokesperson Hilary Snow said. “The goal has always been to continue to grow the event and offer new attractions each year.”
Despite it being a pandemic year, the town is welcoming around 700 people weekly as the grounds illuminate at dusk. The park features large motion displays, including snowmen playing baseball, two children having a snowball fight, even Old Man Winter blowing cold weather to the south. Santa shows up a few times and his reindeer also make an appearance.
“Even one shy deer ‘runs’ away when people approach,” Snow said.
There also are singing Christmas trees and multitudes of “dripping” lights and ornaments. The Candy Cane Forest is a hot spot (someone even got engaged there last year, Snow said), as are all the cutout light displays for photo-ops.
“Nine very hard-working and dedicated town staff members spent a total of 1,400 man hours getting the lights in place this year,” Snow said. They decorated the large tree near town hall, plus lit up Village Road, and dressed Founders Park.
In normal years, Leland in Lights has a kickoff event with Santa and Mrs. Claus arriving on a fire truck to Santa’s workshop. In 2019 they even flipped the switch to light the town tree and Founders Park simultaneously. This year because of Covid-19 protocols, there wasn’t a Santa visit. And rather than host Leland Cultural Art Center’s Holiday Market in person, as happens most years, the holiday market was hosted virtually.
“What is most popular, in general, about Leland in Lights is that it is a free event that families and people of all ages can enjoy,” Snow said.
Next year, a return to more face-to-face celebrations are on the agenda. Leland in Lights will remain lit through January 10.
Christmas in the Country
Old Homestead Farm • 438 Rocky Point Elementary School Rd., Rocky Point
In 2018 Margaret and Charlie Overby and their daughter Mary Margaret, along with her dog Daisy, plus David and Corinne Crooks, with their daughters Lucylee and Callie, decided to take their love for Christmas to all new heights. They knew fellow yulephiles would appreciate their tenacity to drape close to 1 million lights across Old Homestead Farm in Rocky Point, only 15 minutes north of Wilmington.
“Everyone loves Christmas and has a passion for sharing this joy with the community,” Corinne wrote in an email to Port City Daily.
Christmas in the Country features a mile of lights and displays that folks drive through in their vehicles. Upon arrival, farm staff instruct which radio station to tune into.
“Guests then turn their headlights off and slowly enjoy the mile-long moving light show!” Corrine explained.
The only adaptation the crew made for 2020 was closing Santa’s Village, where Ol’ Saint Nick welcomes friends, Christmas trees are sold, and food and drinks are served. Corrine plans to bring it back in 2021.
The families begin pulling out spools of lights and displays in October, right when Rocky Point’s NC Bacon Festival ends. Each year, they add more lights and upgrade attractions.
“Our guests rave about the tunnels and 60-foot oak tree that is lit with emerald lights,” Corrine said. The farm is surrounded by 250-year-old live oak trees.
Family members and employees help install the decorations from sunrise to sunset each fall. The staff spends multiple hours planning the layout, coordinating music, as well as cleaning and prepping the 105 acres of land. They also stock up on hot chocolate, which they sell at the entrance.
“Our favorite new attraction is the authentic tractor that is covered in Christmas lights,” Corrine added.
Christmas in the Country opens every Thanksgiving through New Year’s Eve, weeknights and Sunday from 5:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. and Fridays and Saturdays until 10 p.m.
“After the new year, we spend another month taking the display down,” Corrine added.
It costs $25 per carload to drive through the holiday attraction.
The Ford House
254 Buff Court, Leland, NC
Also located in Leland, Tyler Ford’s house is going on two decades of getting the Griswold treatment. He has dazzled the home, gutter to sidewalk, with 57,200 lights — which also leads to a hefty electric bill each season.
“I consider it a joyful hobby that I can share with others,” Ford said.
A military family, the Fords began the tradition of going big for the holidays 20 years ago. It actually started when Ford rented a parsonage from a church and decided to decorate it with so many lights that it attracted community members nightly.
“The reverend asked if I would consider using my lights to ‘pay it forward,’ which I accepted,” Ford said. “That began what I now do today.”
His family has been decorating homes across multiple states and even lost a few decorations over the years.
“It comes with it’s disadvantages,” Ford said of setting up the house annually, a task that begins late October to be illuminated by Thanksgiving. “But it becomes something of our own.”
The family has stuck to traditional Christmas displays, some even vintage, rather than modernize with “noise and pixels,” according to Ford. Though he does use modern LED lights, some decorations date back to 1977, others rise to 65 feet in height.
“We find that ‘the more you look, the more you see’ brings more to the table than dancing music or visual imagery,” Ford explained. “Perhaps we are holding on to something more in the past, but that’s what we grew up with and it’s what we like.”
He even handbuilt a few of the displays, which took nearly 13 hours on some occasions. Ford utilized the help of neighbors who specialize in woodworking and printing to help fix broken ornaments or create new ones. Students nearby also have helped in exchange for Ford’s time teaching them about electronic and small engine repair.
One of Ford’s favorite decorations is inscribed with the words “Jesus is the reason for the season.”
“The letters were written by my father,” Ford explained. His dad passed away in 2002. “It has been preserved and maintained, and I hope to display this for years to come.”
The decoration is located behind a donation box, which is the other part of the Ford’s Christmas display that has become tradition: collecting more than 2,000 pounds of nonperishable food to donate annually to local food banks.
“It’s a way for my family to directly support the community which we respect and serve,” Ford said. “100% of what we collect goes directly into the hands of our community.”
Ford said it’s been a busier season more than ever. To date his family has collected 3,800 pounds of food.
“Our goal of 2,500 pounds of food has been shattered, leaving us only to set a new goal of 5,000 pounds,” he said.
Since the Fords have lived in Brunswick County, they have donated over 10,000 pounds through Love of Christ Church in Bolivia.
The Ford home will welcome guests until Dec. 31 nightly from 5:30 p.m. until 10 p.m. and on Fridays and Saturdays until 11 p.m., depending on traffic.
“I have on more than one occasion seen families passing by after hours and have turned on the lights specifically for them,” Ford said. “However, out of respect for my generous neighbors— who have all supported my efforts — I do stick to that timeframe, with few exceptions.”
3220 Kirby Smith Dr., Wilmington
The Wulf family on Kirby Smith Drive in the Woodberry Forest subdivision in the Pine Valley area is well-known for their dedication to holidays. They go big at Halloween with a haunted house, and on Oct. 31 throw a party welcoming kids and adults to enjoy multiple tricks and treats.
While Covid-19 put a damper on some of the interactive events they offer annually, the lights display didn’t waver. In fact, their Woodberry Lights home won the City of Wilmington’s holiday home-decorating contest and will be recognized at the Jan. 5 city council meeting.
“I watched a YouTube video of another animated light display and it inspired me to do one myself,” Shawn Wulf said.
And Wulf adds more annually.
“We begin in early September, as we do a Halloween show as well,” Wulf said. “Once all the Halloween decorating is completed, I begin to put parts of the Christmas show out that doesn’t take away from the Halloween show.”
On Nov. 1, the full transformation into Christmas begins. “I usually don’t finish until right before Thanksgiving,” Wulf explained.
“I would guess on Christmas Eve, there are over 100,” he said.
Most nights the family sees between 25 and 40 cars drive by the house between 5:30 p.m. and 10 p.m. Weekends are double with 75 to 100. Wulf said the closer they get to Christmas, the busier it gets.
His obsession began in 2012 with a small attraction. Fast-forward eight years and he now strings approximately 40,000 animated Christmas lights, has 37 Christmas blow-ups, 12 snowmen, three Santas, multiple blow-molds, four animated spinning trees — one is 23 feet tall — more than 12 static light-up trees and three leaping arches.
Passersby tune into 101.1 FM for music that syncs to the flashing lights, and the animated face in the center of the house looks like it’s singing Christmas carols.
Folks often get out and take photos, walk around and see the displays up and close. The Wulfs even host “snow nights” and have snow machines blowing frosty flakes, as they hand out hot chocolate and candy canes.
“We decided not to do any of these this year with the pandemic,” Wulf said.
However, children can still bring their wish lists and drop them in the new “Letters to Santa” box — something that will return next year, along with the community engagement.
Woodberry Lights will run through New Year’s Eve.