Twelve months of planning and preparation. Over 20 carefully designed displays. Three million (yes, million) lights. Those are the kinds of numbers that go into the largest Christmas lights display in the Southern Hemisphere: the annual Christmas Lights Spectacular at Pokolbin’s Hunter Valley Gardens. The Hunter’s favourite celebration of Christmas magic is back this year, bigger, bolder and brighter than ever.
Unsurprisingly, organising an event like the Christmas Lights Spectacular isn’t just an end-of-year endeavour – it’s a year-round job. The HVG team is constantly thinking ahead, aiming to refine, improve and expand the experience with each year’s event. “Twelve months out, we look at what we want to do, what we want to change, how we want to evolve it into the following year,” explains Charise Foulstone, Event Manager at Hunter Valley Gardens. “Generally, by the middle of the year we have a plan in place, and all the ordering will be done, and then October is usually the final time when [the lights] arrive.”
And these aren’t just any lights that can be ordered directly off the market. They’re specifically created for Hunter Valley Gardens after a comprehensive design process mapping out each year’s displays. “It all gets specially made for us,” Charise explains. “We have a plan, we do a drawing, we send our team out to research options and then come up with the right concept for our event.”
Of course, once the lights arrive, there’s the business of actually setting them up – which is no mean feat. (Did we mention this year’s lights tally comes to three million?) The team begins the lengthy process of putting up the lights around three months before the Spectacular opens in November each year. “It’s quite detailed, and there are lots of little components to it,” Charise says. “So the team generally start in August, and then we are still literally putting up lights right till the very end, right up until the moment we open.”
While some displays and the general area traversed by visitors remain the same year to year, the event is always evolving. Layouts are changed, and new displays created, so the experience feels fresh for every guest, even those who make a point of return attendance. “Every year we change it so that when you come the next year, you’re not looking at exactly the same setup and exactly the same area where the lights have been,” Charise explains. “Quite a good amount of our time goes into looking at the layout, thinking about how we want to change it for next year, what new and interesting things we think people would like to see.”
Several brand-new displays have been created for this year’s Spectacular. For those who fancy a taste of Christmas in the Northern Hemisphere, there’s a new White Christmas scene complete with snow-topped trees, arctic animals and a snow cave worthy of the North Pole. And couples looking to add a little romance to their evening at the Gardens won’t want to miss the new Lover's Corner experience. Take a starry-eyed stroll through a heart-shaped light tunnel, snap a picture with your significant other, and of course, share a kiss under the mistletoe.
"We used to have a simple love heart that was a bit of a photo opportunity and was really popular, so now we’ve gone all out and made this brand-new Lover's Corner, which is very exciting. Plus it’s actually in a new area of the Gardens that we haven’t used before."
There are even proposal packages on offer if you’re ready to make it an extra-special holiday season by popping the question amidst the glittering lights!
Overall, the big focus for this year’s new set-up and displays has been interactivity. The HVG team has designed a more immersive experience than in previous years, pairing the usual sparkling visuals with an even greater sense of all-surrounding magic and wonder.
"We’ve got a giant walk-through snow man, we’ve got a big walk-through castle, lots of brand-new arches… We’ve really tried to make it a lot more interactive this year."
For those who are regular visitors to the Christmas Lights Spectacular and are hoping to revisit previous displays, never fear – all your old favourites will be there. Santa’s Workshop is up and running as usual, with an elves’ photo pod and the opportunity for kids to write a letter to Santa himself (and post it in the nearby North Pole mailbox). Santa photos will also be available until Christmas Eve, and families won’t want to miss a merry DIY snap next to the eight-metre-tall illuminated Christmas tree.
Kids can also step straight into a fairytale in the Princess Castle scene, while guests of all ages can take a trip across the globe with the Christmas Around the World display, which incorporates famous landmarks like the Eiffel Tower, Edinburgh Castle, London’s Big Ben, and our very own Sydney Opera House and Harbour Bridge. ‘Hunter’, the enormous light-up teddy bear, was a new addition to the Gardens last year and has returned in 2019 for more prime photo opportunities. Last year’s walk-through Christmas bauble is also back, as giant, gorgeous and glittering as ever.
Some other classic displays have made a return this year as well, including the sweetest stop on the path: Candyland. “Everyone loves Candyland! It’s still in the same position, and of course, it gets added to all the time,” Charise says. “Another one is Fairyland – that’s always a huge favourite. And the Twelve Days [of Christmas display] has been with us for as long as I’ve been here, an incredibly long time. We have that every year because people just love it.” It’s not hard to see why, with the classic carol combining with corresponding light displays to create an irresistibly festive atmosphere.
The lights and displays are the main attraction, of course, but there’s plenty of additional entertainment to enjoy. Classic rides like the specially designed traditional Venetian carousel will delight visitors young and old, while the Ferris wheel offers visitors a unique view of the Gardens from 25 metres up. More adventurous thrill-seekers can take flight on the swing chair ride, or grab a mat and careen down the 12-metre-high, 35-metre-long super slide. There’s also an Inflatable Zone with three toddler-friendly jumping castles and three other inflatables for older kids to clamber over to their hearts’ content (keep in mind that all rides are user-pay).
You’re sure to need sustenance throughout your evening at the Gardens, so head up to the large breakout area filled with food and beverage stalls when you’re ready to refuel. Keep an eye out for roaming carollers (until Boxing Day), magicians and entertainers, as well as popular kids’ entertainment group Little Scallywagz, who’ll be performing their Rock’n Elfy’s show.
It’s not hard to see why the Christmas Lights Spectacular is an ideal family event. But it’s not just for parents and kids. Couples can enjoy a date night in the festive spirit, made even more romantic with the addition of Lover's Corner this year. And it’s a great option for groups of friends or colleagues looking to get into the Christmas spirit out in Wine Country. (Be sure to enquire about the discounted group rates available to groups of 10 or more adults.)
“Christmas Lights really is the event that’s for everyone,” Charise says. “You’ll get the older people who just love the feel of it, right to the very young who are just wowed by it. We get a lot of inbound visitors over the three months that it’s running, and we also do a lot of group things, like group dinners. There’s a little bit of something for everyone.”
And the fun doesn’t stop after Christmas Day has come and gone. Visitors can extend the festive feel right up until the last night of the Christmas Lights Spectacular on Australia Day in 2020. The Gardens are also a perfect place to see in the New Year, with the sky as well as the grounds set to be lit up by an impressive fireworks display on New Year’s Eve.
The bottom line? No matter when you plan to go, and whether you’ve been to previous events or not, this year’s extra-interactive Christmas Lights Spectacular really is an unmissable experience. “Even if people have been previously, they really should get back and have another look at it,” Charise encourages. “We’ve put a lot of money and a lot of work into this year, so it truly is bigger and better than ever before.”
The Hunter Valley Gardens Christmas Lights Spectacular is currently open and runs through to Sunday 26th January 2020. Gates open each day at 5:30pm and close at 10pm. Individual, family and group tickets are available for night entry; combined day + night passes are also available, with accommodation packages on offer for overnight stays. Check out all the details and purchase tickets at www.huntervalleygardens.com.au or contact 02 4998 4000.