David Wells starts putting up his Christmas lights in August each year. While it may seem a tad early to be getting into the festive spirit, too much time is almost never enough when your display contains more than two million lights.
As the event set-up manager at Hunter Valley Gardens, David is part of the creative team and leader of the hard-working muscle behind the largest Christmas Lights display in the Southern Hemisphere.
The Christmas Lights Spectacular takes about three months to be physically set up by David and his team, plus the other dedicated Garden workers which total 25 people.
However, when you take the pre-planning into account, including sourcing new additions, tagging and testing all the lights and ensuring everything complies with strict safety standards, as well as the pack-down at the end of the season, organising the Christmas Lights is almost a year-round job.
“We start in August, usually the second or third week in August, we start setting up the string lights and add in the trees. Then as we get closer to the event, we start putting out some of the other displays, the larger displays,” David said.
“When we get to October, that's when nearly everything comes out; then we look at doing all of the powering up.
“There are about 12 people in my team that help with the physical set-up, I just mostly manage and organise them, and I worked out that for our set-up we basically do about 6500 man hours.
“Packing up is a lot quicker. We usually pack up within six weeks, which is about half the time because with setting up it's a lot more detailed than putting strings in trees and putting displays out. When we're packing up, it’s a lot less time consuming so usually by the first or second week in March we'll have everything packed away.”
David has worked at Hunter Valley Gardens for around 18 years and has been involved with setting up the lights since the idea was first dreamed up 12 years ago.
A lot has changed over that time, with the display growing from a far more modest version to one that now encompasses more than two million lights and 16 major displays, spread over 5 hectares of the world-renowned gardens.
Each year the event grows a little bigger, with more lights and new features designed to enhance what is already a truly magical atmosphere.
David is responsible for planning where every single light goes, from the tiniest string lights to the towering 12m, 9m and 6m high 'mega trees' that are truly a sight to behold.
“The team and I organise where everything goes,” he said.
“There are certain things that stay in the same spot, that are designed for certain areas, for example, the 12 Days of Christmas display stays in the border garden because it's basically designed for that space, while there are a few other areas that stay the same because of the size of the displays.
“Then we have new stuff each year that we need to put out and build, and there are some lights that fail that we take out and replace with newer displays.
“But with all of that, it just comes down to pre-organising to have a look at where we need lights, looking at the best opportunity and the best viewing area for each display.”
David also works with lighting manufacturers to create custom-designed displays for Hunter Valley Gardens, such as the giant world globe, which spans 4m in diametre and is the centrepiece of the spectacular Around the World display.
“There isn’t a lights catalogue that you can go through and pick everything from. They’ll have pictures of certain lights and certain designs that they've built for people in different parts of either Australia or over the world, but then there are also specific displays that we want custom made.
“If there's a design or concept we come up with, we can take it to the lighting companies and say, ‘We’re looking at this, can you make it?’
“We've had some different things over the years, like the globe for our Around the World display, where we basically just said to them this is what we’re after, and they've made it for us.”
David said the 2018 display is the biggest and best yet, with all the traditional favourites including the giant teddy, the Fairy Garden and Santa’s Workshop, as well as a host of new additions that help the display feel fresh and new, especially for those who love to return year after year.
New lights include a magnificent 5m-tall bauble perched in between the amphitheatre and the formal garden, as well as a large rocking horse and a selection of giant stars. Hot air balloons and parachutes hang from the branches of the trees, while oversized rainbows and a magical unicorn and carriage add a colourful, fairy-tale atmosphere to the display.
Having overseen the lights for more than a decade, David has a few favourites among the displays, but he said the best part of his job was seeing the looks on the visitors’ faces.
“Probably my personal favourite would be the 12 Days of Christmas display in the Border Garden. It’s choreographed to music, so it lights up in time,” he said.
“There’s also Candyland, you're walking through Candyland, and there are lights everywhere you look, different candies, bonbons, liquorice all-sorts. And then you’ve got your Princess scene, which is a favourite, we've got a carriage, we've got the castle, we've got a giant slipper, a giant ring.
“My favourite thing overall is when I’m walking around when the people are here, seeing the joy on the kids’ faces and the parents’ faces. I think it's because of how spectacular the lights are and because everywhere you look, and you walk, you see different displays and different lights and different creative areas.
“And we've got food vendors, and we've got entertainment, we've also got the marquee area that has animatronics, elves and Santa and things that move so I think that's fairly interactive.
“Over the years, people come each year, and it's created a bit of a tradition for people to come out and see the lights and get into the festive spirit, which is great.”
DON'T FORGET THE RIDES!
Of course, there’s more to the Christmas Lights Spectacular than just millions of twinkling lights, with a variety of live entertainment and a selection of other activities providing fun for the whole family and a carnival-like atmosphere.
Feel the wind whip through your hair as you fly through the air 12m above the ground on the thrilling swing chair, or speed down the colourful lanes on the incredible super slide, which stands 12m high and is a massive 35m long. There’s also two inflatable zones for even more action-packed fun, with three jumping castles for toddlers and three more obstacle courses for older kids.
For those looking for something slightly more sedate, the giant 25m high Ferris wheel will provide the best view of the gardens, while the traditional Venetian carousel, designed especially for Hunter Valley Gardens, will provide a bit of old-fashioned fun.
A selection of tasty food and beverage stalls will also be on hand for those who work up an appetite exploring the lights.
The Christmas Lights Spectacular was officially switched on at the start of November and will run through until January 26, 2019.
The lights open at 5.30pm each day (apart from Christmas Day), with tickets available for the display alone or as dual day/night pass, which also gives you access to explore the fabulous floral displays of the garden between 9am and 4pm. Passes are valid for one day and one-night entry, and both must be used within a seven-day period.
Tokens for individual rides are $6 each, while unlimited ride wristbands are $15. The rides are open during the Christmas Lights Spectacular from 5.30pm – 9.45pm daily.
For more information visit www.hvg.com.au