WASHINGTON – Holiday traditions for the Zeil family include baking cookies, decorating the Christmas tree and taking a leisurely drive past twinkling scenes of Santa playing ice hockey.
For the past four years, Cheryl Zeil and her three young children have piled into the minivan at the holidays and driven to the Winter Festival of Lights in Largo. There, the Upper Marlboro family marvels at the nearly 500,000 glittering lights that transform Watkins Regional Park into glowing holiday postcard of leaping reindeer and kissing gingerbread figures.
“It’s a great place to bring the kids, they just love it,” said Zeil, whose children attend summer day camps at the park and ride bikes there in the fall. “It gets bigger each year.”
They are not the only ones. Holiday lights displays around the state drew more than 400,000 visitors last year, said organizers, who expect the number to increase this season.
The displays, which began about 15 years ago, can now be found in every part of the state and have fast grown into a modern tradition for some families.
“When I was growing up my family used to look at the window displays,” in stores, said Rachel Miller, associate director of annual giving at Howard County General Hospital. “This (light display) is taking the place. It has become a family tradition.”
That newfound tradition can mean thousands of dollars for organizations like Miller’s that sponsor many of the elaborate light displays.
The Symphony of Lights in Columbia has raised over $600,000 for Howard County General Hospital since it started eight years ago, Miller said. This season’s proceeds have been earmarked toward construction of a hospital wing with delivery, neonatal intensive care and pediatric units.
The Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, which sponsors the Watkins Regional Park light show, asked for donations of canned goods and collected 864 cases of food for local food pantries last year, said Kathy Garrity, area specialist for the park commission. But park officials are worried that that number may fall this year, the first year the commission has charged admission to Watkins Regional Park.
For most others around the state, however, business is booming.
In its first weekend this year, for example, Ocean City’s Winterfest of Lights saw a 23 percent increase in visitors over the first weekend of last year, said Donna Abbott, media services manager for Ocean City.
The drive-through festivals can be more than two miles in distance and contain tons of light displays, each which can cost as much as $250,000, said Catherine Lankewicz, sales and marketing assistant at Carpenter Decorating in Hickory, N.C. Her firm has worked on festivals in Columbia, Gaithersburg and Ocean City.
Lankewicz said sales boomed when the festivals took off about 10 years ago, but business has tapered off as exhibitors have stocked up on displays, which last for years. But many local organizers said they are still growing.
“It is our intent that the festival get bigger and brighter every year,” said Elizabeth Poole, coordinator of the Winter Lights Festival at Seneca Creek State Park in Gaithersburg.
The Winter Festival of Lights in Watkins Regional Park began as a small trail of 25,000 lights and a 25-foot Christmas tree. Today, it has 65 displays, with more than a half-million lights and a 56-foot tree, said Rick Paquin, head electrician for the display since it opened.
The Prince George’s County tour includes both static and animated displays — Santa stuffing a basketball, reindeer leaping over the roadway and toy soldiers smartly saluting. The light displays include typical holiday scenes as well as the less traditional, such as a snapping crocodile or county, state and U.S. flags.
Visitors cruise slowly through the 2.5-mile course listening to messages and soft Christmas tunes through their car radios on a locally broadcast channel, something that several of the tours offer.
For the Zeils and other families throughout the state, the festivals represent a new tradition for a new generation.
“Our general sense is that people are looking for family-oriented events,” said Miller.