Twenty years ago, Scott Hall wanted to create a winter activity that would bring people into Spanaway Park.
The Pierce County Parks and Recreation worker came up with Fantasy Lights, which over the years has grown into more than 300 displays and a nearly uncountable number of lights.
“It is unlike anything else in the area,” said Jennifer Spane, recreation supervisor for the parks and recreation department.
Fantasy Lights started in 1994 as a small display of lights the park rented from a company in Florida. Today, the displays are no longer rented, but rather designed and created by area students.
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Students from Bates Technical College, Clover Park Technical College, Rogers High School and Puyallup High School have contributed displays throughout the years.
“They have been a great idea source,” Spane said.
One instructor came up with an idea of a Harley-riding Santa jumping over a pile of packages. With his students’ help, the concept turned into reality.
Staff members and their families also contribute ideas for new displays, which are reused each year and enable the event to grow, Spane said.
Fantasy Lights has two kinds of displays.
Those made by high school students are smaller and lighter. They are made with rebar and are shapes that beginning welders can handle.
This year students contributed 40 butterflies and dragonflies for the fence, Spane said.
“They are very ornate and detailed,” she said.
The second type, made from steel and heavier, need to be braced from the front and back.
“Those displays are a little bit more intricate and they fit together so you can take them apart,” Spane said.
An example is a pirate ship that’s three to four stories tall.
The students start working on the displays in late spring and then deliver them to the maintenance shop at the park by mid-summer.
The crew paints the displays primer white to protect them from the elements and then adds the lights. The bulbs can be changed each year to make displays different colors.
The six weeks needed to assemble the displays in the park starts in October.
The displays are featured in every area of the park.
“Nothing is dark,” Spane said.
The electricity used to light the displays is equivalent to two to three homes, she said. Proceeds from the event help offset the costs.
“Our goal is to break even,” Spane said.
Last year, Fantasy Lights brought in $290,703 and spent $267,336
The park is switching the displays to LED lights, which cost less to run and look brighter than old-style bulbs. About half of the displays now are LED lights, Spane said.
“All of the displays are cool, but the LED ones are fun, funky bright colors,” Spane said.
Fantasy Lights’ 36-day run began on Thanksgiving Day and will continue through New Year’s Day.
Last year, 23,373 cars drove through, which organizers figure translates into 116,865 people. Fantasy Lights saw its biggest turnout in 2001, when 25,864 cars took the tour.
So far attendance this year is ahead of last year, Spane said.
“We have had record numbers coming for us, and we are really pumped,” Spane said.
Some families have made the tour a tradition.
“People tell us they came with their kids and now they bring their grandkids,” Spane said.
The 2.5-mile drive takes about 30 minutes, and while on the tour, viewers can listen to the park’s radio station, which features holiday music, put together by MIXX, a radio station in Olympia.
Visitors who come the week before Christmas can expect to wait in lines upwards of two hours before they start, Spane said.
“We really urge people to come Monday through Thursday if they don’t want to wait,” she said.