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Light up the holidays: Where to find the twinkle in area displays

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: November 24, 2008 - Every year around this time, a gang of grandpas head into the cold depths of Rock Spring Park in Alton, past routes they've traveled daily since September, past wooden displays they've built and miles of dark Christmas lights. 

Christmas Wonderland first twinkled in the park about 16 years ago, started by a local grandpa who was joined by others eager to do something for the community.

"Who's got more time than retired people?" says Cowgill, who's been a member of the nonprofit group, offically called Christmas Wonderland, since 2001.

Over the years, membership has surged and fallen to small numbers of just five or six men last year. After the August death of the grandpa gang workhorse, Carl Davis, new board president and head grandpa Bob Osburn, 60, made a plea for more grandpas. Once again, they appeared. This year, about 20 grandpas are in the group, and 12 men a day fill the park, working. Willard Patridge, 71, has volunteered since 1999. His job most years is reeling out 8,000 feet of wire.

"That's kind of back breakin' sometimes," he says.

For the really heavy labor, the men often have other volunteers and the aid of local prisoners. But accidents do happen, and ankles and more have been broken.

Each year, more lights and displays are added and often depict scenes of meaning to the city. Though not as bright as some years, this year's display includes 3 million lights, says Osburn.

Because of the change of leadership, Osburn has no record of what it costs to put up the display or run it, he's working on that. And he also has no record of visitors.

"Every year, bad weather or good, we have a good turnout," Patridge says.

And even on slow nights like Christmas, between 200 and 300 cars drive through.

All three men expect the grandpa gang will keep lighting up the park in years to come, though that will take new men to come in and replace the ones whose backs and knees can't make it anymore.

But they're out there, the men think, just waiting to retire, join the grandpa gang and be part of something that, unlike other light shows, wasn't created through high tech know-how, but hard work, friendship and anticipation for the moment when the lights turn on and the magic begins.

Christmas Wonderland, Rock Spring Park, Alton

Christmas Wonderland opens Friday, Nov. 28 and runs through Sunday, Dec. 28. Hours are Monday through Friday, 6 to 9 p.m. and weekends, 5 to 9 p.m.

Other attractions include Santa, a petting zoo with a miniature cow, llama and goats and horse-drawn carriage rides.

On Dec. 1, walk through the park for $1.

Cars and vans cost $7, for vehicles with 10 or more people, admission is $1 each. For more, go to www.visitalton.com , www.christmaswonderlandofaltonil.net/ , or call 1-800-258-6645.

Way of Lights, Our Lady of the Snows, Belleville

Remember some of what makes Christmas meaningful to so many while rolling through 1.5 miles of light displays at the Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows, open now and running through Jan. 4, from 5 to 9 p.m.

Way of Lights is open for drive through on Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Way of Lights features a laser light show about the birth of Jesus, which costs $3, kids 4 and under are free.

There's a free petting zoo and camel rides, which cost $5 for adults and $4 for kids, an advent concert, a children's village and puppet show, and trolley and horse-drawn carriage rides.

Call 618-397-6700 or go to www.snows.org/events.aspx?path=root/english/events/wayoflights .

Santa's Magical Kingdom, Jellystone Park, Eureka

Forget the North Pole, according to the people at Jellystone Park, Santa's set up his Magical Kingdom there now, with a light display and the chance to meet the man in red himself. Santa's Magical Kingdom features hundreds of light displays and millions of lights, offers a general store and train and wagon rides.

Santa's Magical Kingdom is open now through Jan. 4, from 5:30 to 10:30 p.m.

Admission costs $17 a vehicle.

Train and wagon rides cost $12 a person and include vehicle admission.

For information visit www.santasmagicalkingdom.com or call 636-938-5925.

Winter Wonderland, Tilles Park, 9551 Litzsinger Rd. 63124 

Winter Wonderland is now open in Tilles Park and will light up the night through Jan. 4. The display, in its 23rd year, is closed on Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve.

See the more than 1. 5 million twinkling lights from 5:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.

Admission is $9, and on Saturdays, the park is closed to traffic and reserved for carriage rides. Reservations are required for the carriage rides.

Go to www.co.st-louis.mo.us/parks/ww/ww2008.htm , or call 314-615-5000 for more information.

Celebration of Lights, Fort Zumwalt Park, O'Fallon, Mo.

St. Charles County gets a glow of its own in O'Fallon with the Celebration of Lights. The display offers carriage, wagon and train rides.

Costs and hours vary depending on the day. Mondays are for train rides only.

Way of Lights opens Nov. 28 and closes Dec. 30. The display isn't open on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. Dec. 9 will be the walk-through night, from 6 to 9 p.m.

Go to www.ofallon.mo.us/dept_tourism_COL.htm or call 636-240-2000 for more.

Wild Lights, St. Louis Zoo

Beginning weekends Nov. 28 through Dec. 14, and then nightly through Dec. 23 and Dec. 26-30, the St. Louis Zoo will glow with Wild Lights.

Wild Lights, open from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. features light displays of animals at the Zoo, a Gingerbread Village, costumed characters and performances by local choirs. Story telling, shopping and warm treats are also available. Admission costs $5. Children under 2 are free.

The Conservation Carousel is open for $2 and the ride Glacier Run for $3.

For more, go to www.stlzoo.org/events/calendarofevents/wildlights or call 314-781-0900.

Kristen Hare is a freelance journalist. T

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