Launching A Holiday Light Show

By Keith Tomlinson and Jules R. Maloney

After nearly two years of planning, NOVA Parks in Virginia opened the Meadowlark Winter Walk of Lights at Meadowlark Botanical Gardens in 2012. As one of NOVA Parks’ premier destinations, the stakes were high. Considerable knowledge was in place from the long-running Bull Run Festival of Lights, another popular NOVA Parks attraction. But there were important differences. Foremost among those is that Bull Run is a drive-thru show. Meadowlark is a pedestrian experience, where visitors are in close contact with each other and the exhibits. Moreover, Meadowlark is a public botanical garden, so the theming and aesthetic content had to be seamless.

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Hire The Right Consultants
Launching a light show requires expertise and design experience. The initial consultant was able to combine design layout and forecast electrical needs with staff input. What emerged was a page-by-page planning guide that provided distinct visual interpretations of the one kilometer (.6 of a mile) walk. This was a true “living document” for nearly 12 months as staff members and consultants worked out details of the physical plant and operations. This was a learning experience and collaboration was essential. That said, the park administrative team drove the process. A consultant must understand a particular site’s capacity for exhibits, power, and ultimately visitor flow—all issues the park staff should know in detail.

In moving through the planning process, operational priorities began to emerge. One of the greatest challenges was installation, which can be all-consuming the first year. On average, the installation time is about three months. The consultants must be engaged in this crucial stage as each exhibit will be placed and secured. In addition, many exhibits are software-driven and may require programming. Music often accompanies more complex exhibits; programming synchronization takes time and expertise. Over time, staff members may grow into managing some of these functions, but it’s the consultants who will ensure things are fine-tuned. This entire process brings considerable industry into a park. As a public garden, there is a focus on creating a peaceful, beautiful space; the light show installation compromises that goal, but surprisingly few complaints were received.

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Installation To Operations
The Meadowlark Winter Walk of Lights installation happened in specific phases. In July and August, light strings were being tested and older wire frames tuned with new lights. As September dawned, wire frames were catalogued and readied for installation. Small trees were wrapped throughout the garden. This was labor-intensive, and many staff members from other NOVA Parks contributed. Sometimes employees would simply report to the location for a week or more. Soon the high-tree contractors arrived. Their specific task was to wrap nearly 30 trees to heights of 50 feet. High-tree wrapping can occur rapidly when two or three man-lifts are operating simultaneously. But these contractors must be watched closely; they must work within OSHA regulations and not damage trees.

As installation proceeded and power was hooked up, a temporary physical plant was being created. Miles of wire were laid. Underground conduits were needed for trail transits. Seven RV-style plugs that power the show were installed. These were connected to mobile panel boxes with multiple 110 outlets that exhibits plug into directly. The boxes, fabricated by the NOVA Parks carpenter and electrician, were built onto a dolly to make moving them easy. In the event of rain, some exhibits may go out. These boxes allowed easy access to troubleshoot.

The week before opening, a critical walk-through took place to analyze the show in detail. The show incorporated three main components:

  • High trees

  • Low trees

  • Hundreds of wire-framed features.

Many of the wire frames were made exclusively for this show. Several animals were featured, including turtles, birds, bears, foxes, deer, snails, and fish in an illuminated faux stream. There were also fountains, skaters, flowers, and vines. Two large software-driven features included a walk-through tunnel and an animated feature moving to the Boston Pops playing holiday songs. This feature, called Lakeside Lights, took a special sub-contract to write the complex code that combines the lights moving to the music.

The installation of the Winter Walk of Lights was the result of an effective collaboration of consultants, horticulturists, maintenance, management, and operations staff members with a goal of re-creating nature in lights and illuminating the elegant architecture of the trees and shrubs throughout the gardens. Reflecting the garden’s mission, nature is the central theme. There is no religious content.

Opening And Operations
In the first year, a grand opening was complete with local dignitaries and NOVA Parks Board Members. In the following years, the park simply opened in mid-November and let the momentum build, supplemented by an active social-media campaign. Local radio and television broadcast feature stories and offered huge exposure. The Thanksgiving holiday launched the busy season. This ran through Christmas and slowed considerably after the New Year. Facebook and Twitter were very useful ongoing social media in keeping the visitation, reviews, and interest growing.

For any parks interested in producing light shows with all of the descriptions in our park, we strongly recommend online ticketing. Evaluate the vendor carefully and ensure you have full access to visitor data in the system. This can streamline the admission process and help with parking challenges. It also reduces the amount of cash on hand. That said, walk-up admissions are lucrative and build admission revenue substantially over the life of the show. Getting the community involved is a key to success—special rates for scouts, youth organizations, and other groups; appreciation nights for first responders, teachers, military, and nurses; and Spirit Coupon fundraisers for charitable groups invite the community to play a special role, which will increase promotion.

Wow The Public
The moment visitors walk into our Visitor Center, they are awed by the display of lights, crystals, and other décor hanging from the 40-foot-high ceiling. Guests then walk through the Snowflake Shoppe that offers every wearable light-up accessory imaginable. This allows guests to become part of the light displays! Along the way, there are spots designed specifically for a great photo—one with props to add even more charm, great for holiday greeting cards! After enjoying ¾-million lights, guests can sweeten their experience with s`mores and hot beverages from the S`MORE SNACKS concession next to a roaring fire on the Garden Patio. The final light display is a quiet walk among vase-shaped cherry trees wrapped in blue with lighted snow falling gracefully. Upon return to the Visitor Center, there’s an opportunity to find an array of holiday gifts at the Blossoms Garden Gift Shop. Many patrons return several times throughout the eight-week season, especially as out-of-town guests visit for Thanksgiving, Christmas, Chanukah, New Year’s, and other holidays.

A successful light show can yield big profits and promote your park for year-round visitation. Take the time needed to plan in detail and know what the local economy will bear for admission fees. It’s a multifaceted project with substantial revenue potential. The public will be thrilled and return each year.

Keith P. Tomlinson is the Manager and Jules R. Maloney is the Program Manager for Meadowlark Botanical Gardens, A Property of NOVA Parks. Reach Tomlinson at ktomlinson@nvrpa.org.