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Chehaw Festival of Lights shines

Don Meeks, maintenance director at Chehaw Park, headed up creation of Chehaw’s own light display program. Meeks said this is the second year the park has presented the improved lighting, and expects the show to become a major regional attraction.

Don Meeks, maintenance director at Chehaw Park, headed up creation of Chehaw’s own light display program. Meeks said this is the second year the park has presented the improved lighting, and expects the show to become a major regional attraction.

ALBANY — Its the time of year when Chehaw presents its annual Festival of Lights celebration, “and it’s the very best light display we’ve ever had,” said executive director Doug Porter Wednesday.

According to Porter, until recently the lights used in the event were rented from an independent company, and were same displays each year. They were expensive, Porter says.

“It was costing us $50,000 a year to rent the lights,” Porter said, “and I just thought we could do better.”

Porter discussed the matter with park maintenance director Don Meeks, taking a close look at the lights they were using, possible options, and even taking a drive through nearby Callaway Gardens.

“I can do that,” was Meeks’s simple response to the Callaway displays, Porter said.

According to Porter, he and Meeks were able to convince Chehaw to provide $100,000 for the local light display initiative. Equipment was purchased and a staff was hired to support Meeks in his new and creative endeavor. After more than a year of experimenting, testing and building, Chehaw’s own Christmas light display debuted in 2010. Prior to the project, Meeks had never done anything similar, he said.

“Last year was a very good start,” Meeks said. “For my level of experience at the time, and for the beginning of something new, I can’t imaging things going better. This is the year you’re really going to see something.”

Porter said the train was “left alone” last year, but is decorated now. “The Twelve Days of Christmas” display was absent also.

“Those are two critical items for a Christmas show,” said Porter, “and we know that. You can’t do everything right away. You can bet we have them this year.”

It’s easy to tell that Meeks is proudest of his special Christmas Bell display, completed this year for the big show.

“There are 72 bells in the display,” Meeks said, “and each one of them is about two feet square and controlled by a unique computer program. As you listen to the music, when a particular note or group of notes is struck, the appropriate bell lights up. It’s a cool, very technical effect.” According to Meeks, the bell display is best appreciated by driving slowly or stopping entirely.

Meeks said that although the show has already become “something we can be proud of,” he envisions the overall displays becoming even better over the next two or three years, ultimately creating a regional attraction able to compete with more famous light events like the one at Callaway Gardens.

“I’m very pleased,” Meeks said. “We can have something here that people from as far away as Valdosta, say, might come to see. Of course that will help power the economy and take Albany to a higher level.”

Porter is “astonished at how great it looks,” he said. “Don and his people really did a great job. Right there in there own shop they worked all year with rope lighting, rebar and tube steel, making what they needed for the show.”

In addition to the Twelve Days of Christmas and the musical bell display, new for this year is The Monkey Forest, with “animated” monkeys positioned in the trees.

“They’re a part of the drive,” Porter said, “and the way the monkeys flash on and off, it looks like they’re dancing.”

According to Porter, the Chehaw Festival of Lights will open at 6 p.m. today, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, closed Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, then open every evening except Christmas through Dec. 31. Cost to attend the show is $12 per car, or $8 per car for Chehaw members. Train rides are $3 per person.