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Festival of Lights to shine once again

Some of the lights have already been put up along Philema Road, where passersby can enjoy illuminated giraffes, monkeys and elephants.

Some of the lights have already been put up along Philema Road, where passersby can enjoy illuminated giraffes, monkeys and elephants.

ALBANY — There will be opportunities for people in the area to see Christmas lights even before holiday parades in Albany and Leesburg.

The annual Festival of Lights at Chehaw is set to kick off on the evening of Nov. 30 and run through Dec. 30. “It is similar to last year in that it is mostly drive-through,” said Doug Porter, Chehaw’s executive director. “It is set to music.”

FESTIVAL OF LIGHTS

Light shows: Nov. 30, Dec. 1-2, 6-7, 8-9, 13-24 and 26-30.

Santa expected: Dec. 14-15, 18-19 and 20-22, coordinators say.

Cost: $12 per vehicle for Chehaw members and $15 for non-members.

Train ride: patrons will pay an additional $3 per person.

The dates for the show are Nov. 30, Dec. 1-2, 6-7, 8-9, 13-24 and 26-30. With a crew of five people, preparation time of roughly one month is necessary to get the show ready for the park’s visitors, officials say.

“It takes a long time frame to get the lights set up,” Porter said. “We get the lights up, the wiring up, (the displays) sequenced and run them for a while to make sure it all works.”

In the zoo parking lot, roughly halfway through the trail, visitors will get the chance to stop and enjoy the festival — which will include a train ride, a chance to meet Santa and the opportunity to roast marshmallows.

“There will be new and different lighting on the train,” Porter said. “There will be some surprises and some differences (from previous years).”

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Jimmy McKenzie welds pieces of rebar together to form a snowflake at Chehaw’s welding shop. It takes McKenzie about 30 minutes to build a single snowflake.

Those who stop in the park this year can expect to see the “Monkey Forest,” a display sequenced to look like a group of monkeys swinging through trees. Other displays returning this year include “The 12 Days of Christmas,” and the “Ringing Bells” that will be set to the tune of “Carol of the Bells,” Porter said.

Santa is expected to be available Dec. 14-15, 18-19 and 20-22, coordinators say.

Officials say they anticipate 15,000 visitors to the park during the course of the light show’s run. The traffic is generally heaviest just before Christmas Day, Porter said.

Craftsmen will be on site, as well as help from Turner Job Corps, to assist with the set-up and take-down. Until recently, the lights used for the show were rented from an independent company, but two years ago Chehaw was finally able to debut its own light display.

Over the long run, owning the lights is having an impact on the cost of doing the show, Porter said.

“It doesn’t cost as much now because we own it,” he said. “It is costing less and less as the years go by.”

Construction and Maintenance Manager Don Meeks says that the community likely doesn’t understand the behind-the-scenes work going on at the park to provide the festival of lights in the most efficient way possible.

“We took an event that was costing the park $20,000 when we were under contract and, using (special sales tax dollars) were able to turn it into something profitable...by doing everything here,” Meeks said. “We’re putting people to work, we’re buying as much of the construction materials locally and we’re saving tax dollars.”

Meeks said that it takes a crew of six people six weeks to build and set up the lights, some of whom are temporary employees.

Since taking control of it in 2010, the park has built more than 1,000 different light elements, Meeks says, some of which are combined into single light structures or arranged into ornate collages of holiday luminance.

This includes the valley of the snowflakes — an area where patrons are literally surrounded by large snowflakes that are lit in sequence to give the illusion that they’re falling from the sky.

This year, the park is adding a new feature that ties into its newest attraction — the African Veldt.

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Wiley Ham, one of the workers at Chehaw who puts the light displays together, joins two light ropes on a snowflake display.

Meeks says that the welders and fabricators are busy building a series of antelope which will be positioned so that it appears as if they are running and jumping over park patrons as they drive through the exhibit.

Aside from the benefit of bringing people into the park late in the year, the light show is conducted over the course of a month rather than just one day, giving patrons ample opportunity to attend the show and the park the chance to make up for a day of inclement weather, Porter said.

The Festival of Lights usually begins immediately after Thanksgiving Day. But, with Thanksgiving falling earlier in the month this year, officials said that delaying it one week would give staff the time needed to switch gears from the Halloween program Chehaw presented in October to getting ready for the holiday light show.

Delaying the start of the show by one week also allows Chehaw to coincide its kickoff with the Albany and Leesburg holiday parades, which are set to take place Dec. 1.

“It will help in terms of attendance and getting things ready,” said Porter.

The cost is $12 per vehicle for Chehaw members and $15 for non-members. To ride the train, patrons will pay an additional $3 per person.

Staff writer J.D. Sumner contributed to this report.