Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Holiday Lights and Christmas Spirit!

I love Christmas.  Aside from Halloween, it’s my favorite holiday of the year.  For those who know me, I converted to Islam in 2004 and married my wife.  While we don’t necessarily celebrate Christmas (Jesus was just a prophet in Islam), we do enjoy all the festivities and “commercial” aspects of Christmas.  We put up a Christmas tree, decorate the house with lights, send holiday cards, give gifts, etc.  My mother is Catholic, and my brother is Unitarian, so we really just embrace the festivities and don’t really worry ourselves with the religious aspect of it all.

I love Christmas lights.  I’m one of those people who will drag his wife and children out three or four times in late December to go look at the displays.  I love the creativity that people put into their lights on the houses and the inflatable and wooden lawn decorations.  A house about a half mile from us has a monster 20 foot reindeer made out of sheets of plywood, and the thing is just amazing!  This year was the first time I’d hung up lights at my house, and I realized how much of a pain in the butt it is to do.  I ended up just doing one solid string of icicle lights across our front gutter and rope lights spiraling down the front porch/ramp.  Of course, my neighbor, who up until now had never put lights up, had to outdo me by putting lights in trees and all over his house, but I’m not one that plays “keeping up with the Joneses”, and so he can certainly sit in his house and gloat for all I care.  His house is nothing compared to the guy with the giant white reindeer.

Anyway, in Altoona, PA, we have a small amusement park called Lakemont Park, and every year they do a wonderful Lights on the Lake display where they’ll light up the whole park and charge $10/car to drive through.  We’ve gone numerous times, and I’ve always thought it was rather nice, especially because many of the local companies in the area will pay for displays and have their own interesting and individual designs.  For example, Sheetz has a steaming cup of coffee, and in years past they’ve had their gasoline trucks with the “MTO” logo and other neat interpretations.

I’ve always thought, though, that there had to be better displays somewhere.  Like the “grass is always greener”, which I know is never right, but I couldn’t help wondering.  So this past weekend, while visiting my in-laws in the Harrisburg area, we went in search of a “better display”.  After my wife did a tremendous amount of research (roughly 5 minutes Googling), we decided to check out the Hershey Sweet Lights at Hershey Park.  We figured, hey, it’s Hershey Park.  These lights just have to dazzle us and blow away Lakemont’s Lights on the Lake, right?!?

My wife, son, and mother-in-law and father-in-law all climbed into our car, and we went off in search of the lights.  They live approximately 20 minutes from Hershey taking Linglestown Road/Rt 39, and when we arrived, we could see the lights from Rt. 39.  We thought we saw the entrance, but we passed it, so we drove up through a ton of traffic (the Hershey Bears hockey game had just ended), then turned around and came back.  When we arrived at what we thought was the entrance, we realized that the road was closed, and no signs pointed to where we should go.  My wife got out our tablet PC again, looked up the maps, and we took some back roads to where we thought was the entrance.  As we drove up, we could see cars off to the right (the entrance), and cars off to the left on a cross road.  We approached, and a police officer told us that we had to go up and make the next left and follow it out to the end of the line.

We followed his instructions, drove out through a backwoods, twisty, turny road and found ourselves at the back of the line.  I pulled up my GPS on my phone and discovered that we were over a mile away from the entrance.  Yes, a mile!  We then waited in line for the next hour and fifteen minutes, my son and his grandparents taking a nap in the back, until we finally got to the place where you pay.  Attendants there directed the cars into four separate lines that led to payment stations.  While waiting we bought a bag of caramel corn for $6, and the guy offered us 24 oz bottles of water and soda for $2/each, which we declined.

After we paid admission ($25/car—way more than the $10/car at Lakemont), we proceeded through the gate onto a road where the drivers were then instructed to form into two lanes.  Nobody turned their headlights off, and we basically drove alongside another car through a field for the next half hour.  The lights were neat, but very few of them were animated.  I tried keeping everyone entertained as we drove about 2mph, and so when we got to the 12 Days of Christmas, I sang the song.  We moved so slowly, though, that I kept having to pause, and my son began paying more attention to his Spider-Man DVD than the lights outside.

When we finally got out of the field, we were forced onto another back road, where lights were set up on the left but none on the right (making the cars on the right have to look over our car to see the lights).  We moved maybe 20 feet every minute or so until we finally reached a point where the cars were forced to form a single lane, which of course created a huge bottleneck.  After getting through that, which took fifteen to twenty minutes, we were directed up a hillside where there were many more lights set up in the woods.  These lights were pretty neat, displaying woodland creatures, storybook characters, etc.  Moving in a single-file line was so much easier and faster, and we moved through at a decent speed.  However, by this time we were so tired of waiting and just sitting in the car that none of us—not even my 2-year-old son—were even paying much attention to the lights.  All we wanted to do was get out of there so that we could go home.

Even on the busiest nights, the line for Altoona’s Lights on the Lake is maybe a half hour wait.  They instruct drivers to drive single-file, maintain a slow but safe speed (no stopping), and turn their headlights out.  It’s a great experience with numerous animated lights, a neat tunnel that has synchronized moving lights, and trees that have every inch covered with green , yellow, red, or blue lights.  It’s only $10/car, too, and even though it has only about half the lights as Hershey, it’s a far better experience.  I know my in-laws liked Hershey, but they’ve never seen Lights on the Lake, and we told them that next year we would take them.  I almost think it’d be worth the money to drive from the Harrisburg area to Altoona to see the lights there, because they are right off of I-99 and are cheaper and better.  Besides, the whole Lights on the Lake experience takes maybe 45 minutes to an hour on the busiest nights.  The Hershey Sweet Lights took us over two and a half hours, and that doesn’t include the driving time it took to get to them and back.

I love Christmas, and I love lights, but Hershey’s light display just reeks of a corporate, money-making consumer trap.  I just don’t understand why, with the hordes of people that go there, it has to be so expensive.  They probably had 5000 cars pass through there in one night, and at $25/car, that’s $125,000.  In one night!  This display is open from November to January!  I know it probably takes a lot of money to pay for the electricity, but I’m betting that Hershey makes a nice $2-$3 million profit off of their display.  Seriously, Hershey, where is your Christmas spirit?!?

If you want a good light display, and Altoona’s not too far of a drive for you, check out the Lights on the Lake.  And if it is too far of a drive, check out the effort that your neighbors put into their lights.  But whatever you do, don’t waste your time and money on Hershey’s Sweet Lights.