What were you doing the week before Thanksgiving? Well, if you were Tony Cook, you were putting up three 10-foot trees, two dozen smaller ones, three Santas, several Frostys, multiple penguins, a family of polar bears and a boxer dog in your front yard, along with computer-controlled animation and loudspeakers. Yep, it’s holiday lights time, and two South Sound couples — one in Tacoma, one in Olympia — put way more effort than most of us into their very different displays.
Merry, bright and animated
Tony and Maureen Cook’s display is, by any standards, jaw dropping. On quiet Prairie Ridge Drive in the Hawks Prairie neighborhood, there are quite a few enthusiastic front yards: inflatable snowmen, holy families, a Snoopy on a red-lit Sopwith Camel, Santa flying a white golf cart and the yard chock-full of candy canes as you turn from Marvin Road into Northeast 44th Street.
But the Cooks take the prize. Their entire yard — and it’s a big one — is filled with lighted figures and trees that dance in time to upbeat holiday music, along with foot-high letters along the roofline.
Visitors love it.
“People stop, get out and sing along,” says Maureen. “It’s so fun.”
People stop, get out and sing along.
Maureen Cook, Olympia
The neighbors have even been inspired to do more with their own displays, say the Cooks, who give them leftover equipment, and the guy from the 44th Street corner comes by to talk shop. Neighborhood kids leave messages for the elves in the red-and-white-lit mailbox.
One year an elderly widow came by. She’d recently lost her husband, who’d always done a big display. Her family asked if she might take a seat and watch the whole choreographed show.
“It was really nice,” remembers Maureen, who fixed hot cider for them.
It’s clear that the entire display is Tony’s handiwork. Every year, he takes a week off before Thanksgiving to assemble the array of figures, cords, tarped control boxes and wireless speakers. He has four 20-amp circuit breakers dedicated to the display, wired up by an electrician friend. He goes through 20 rolls of electrical tape to waterproof the connections. Each 10-foot tree, wrapped in red, blue or confetti lights and flanking the front door, takes around three hours to assemble. This year he made a row of mini-trees from inverted tomato cages. The medium-sized trees, with four sections of lights timed with music, take longest, and the whole thing is computer controlled from inside the garage, with elaborate displays beginning at 4:30 p.m.
8,800 Lights on the large, medium and small trees in the Cooks’ front yard
After the Cooks’ display is going, it’s impossible to look away. White reindeer legs kick up and down, penguins slide down an igloo while another flies on a soaring Frosty the Snowman. Another Frosty waves an arm next to a girl in a snowflake, Santa dances on the chimney, and across the lawn elves pack presents onto a conveyor belt while another Santa checks a list next to a sign that flashes between “Naughty” and “Nice.” The trees beat out red, blue and green to “Feliz Navidad,” while white netting on the curbside rock bed flashes left and right on cue.
Guarding the driveway is an illuminated boxer dog, bought when the Cook’s former boxer died a few years ago and now matching their new dog inside.
As the big signs on the roof confirm, it’s definitely a “Winter Wonderland.”
“It grows every year,” says Tony, who began the whole thing with a couple of strings 17 years ago for his then-toddler daughter. She’s now a sophomore in college and doing her own decorations. Buying mostly online, from the same company that supplies Tacoma’s Zoolights, he estimates they’ve spent over $30,000 on his all-LED lights over the years, plus hours over summer testing, restringing and repairing — especially if local pranksters decide to rearrange the display in a non-Christmassy fashion (think lusty reindeer). He even broke his heel one year, falling off a ladder.
There are still a few empty spots on the lawn, and Tony Cook has plans for them.
“I want to get Rudolph, and the Abominable Snowman,” he says.
“But not yet,” cautions Maureen. “Wait until it goes on sale.”
Janice Wilson didn’t even know about the holiday lights contest in Browns Point until well after the lights were up on her Beverly Street home, but she and husband Herb are definitely in the running for first prize, according to their Facebook neighbors.
“Wow! Can you come and decorate my house now,” asked Melissa Engler in one of the 25 comments and 100-plus likes that Wilson got within 24 hours of posting a photo to the Friends of NE Tacoma/Browns Point group page.
Every year we get an anonymous card that says, ‘We love your lights.’
Janice Wilson, Tacoma
That contest — in its first year, and organized by Realtor David Berg as a way to strengthen community — has already garnered some 15 entrants. But Janice and Herb Wilson have deeper reasons for draping their 80-foot-wide home with icicles, colored strings, garlands, candy canes, stars and snowflakes.
“I grew up in Spokane, and every year the Spokesman-Review would have a holiday lights contest,” says Janice, who like Herb is now retired. “My mom would always drive us around and those people went all out. One place even had an organ outside. Ever since, I’ve loved looking at lights.”
Herb also grew up in a lights-loving family, and since the two were married 29 years ago, they’ve decorated their Browns Point home. But aside from a Santa sled and reindeer, there are no lights on the lawn — they’re all adorning the elegant architecture of the two-story home.
Icicle lights follow the line of the eaves, up and down the roof triangles flanking the center entrance. Colored strings run the length of both upstairs decks, continuing at the same height across the recent extension on the right side. Swags of golden garlands droop between candy-caned deck posts. More colored strings run up and down the stairs and over each garage door. Bushes are outlined in colored nets, and a snowman and nutcracker (new this year) flank each end of the home.
Also new this year: a runway in blue lights for Santa’s sled.
“Our daughter works for Delta, and she pointed out that Santa needed a landing strip,” explains Janice.
From the street, you even catch a glimpse of the inside lights: strings around the trim, stars around the doorway and a tall tree in the upper left living room.
Like the Cook’s display in Olympia, the Wilson’s lights aren’t easy to put up. Herb estimates it takes 20 hours of work, including climbing a 20-foot ladder for the icicles. Janice directs and assembles the figures on the lawn. With their house high on the hill overlooking the lights of Tacoma and Vashon, the Wilsons have to deal with wind. Herb recently invented a T-clip that secured the strings so they wouldn’t blow up on the roof.
5,000Lights in the icicles, colored strands and garlands across the Wilsons’ 80-foot-wide house
The other tricky part is finding replacements. The Wilsons buy their lights from local stores, so they can see what they’re getting, but they’ve learned that supplies run out by December. Some strands are so old they’re not made anymore, and Herb finds a way to repurpose them.
While Browns Point has a lot of lights displays, from inflatables to blue gingerbread trim, the neighbors still love the Wilsons’ house.
“Every year we get an anonymous card that says, ‘We love your lights,’ ” says Janice. “We still don’t know who it’s from.”
Next year, Janice is hoping to create a giant Christmas tree by stringing diagonals down from the deck. Herb, who tests and exchanges every non-working bulb, says there’s always more to do.
But they love it anyway.
“I love it when the deck is all lit up,” says Janice.
“And I love the fact that LED lights use 10 percent of the (energy) of incandescents,” says Herb practically.
See the Lights
Olympia: The Cooks, 6708 Prairie Ridge Drive NE, Olympia; 4:30-11 p.m. through Dec. 25, then til 10 p.m. through early January.
Tacoma: The Wilsons, 5515 Beverly Ave. NE, Tacoma; 4 p.m.-midnight through Jan. 3.
Ten tips for your holiday lights
Take some tips from our two South Sound couples, who’ve been lighting up for a collective 46 years.
1. Play to your house’s strengths. If it has grand architecture, highlight that with vertical, horizontal or swagged strands. If it has pillars or beautiful trees, wind lights around them. If you have a lot of lawn, utilize that for standing figures.
2. Use LEDs. It’s cheaper in the long run, lasts longer and is better for the planet.
3. Buy “constant on” lights, where the strand still works if a couple of bulbs go out.
4. Shop early for availability, or after-Christmas for sales. The Cooks get their animated figures from christmasdonebright.com. The Wilsons shop at Lowe’s and Fred Meyer.
5. Test strands before you put them up and again before you put them away. Replace dead bulbs.
6. Make your own trees with inverted tomato cages bound at the top. Use zipties to attach light strings.
7. Cover each electrical joint with tape, every year. Your bulbs will last much longer.
8. Use multiple circuit breakers if you have lots of lights.
9. Be kind to your neighbors and switch off at a reasonable time of night.
10. Pack each strand individually, layer with plastic or paper and label for next year.
Commercial lights displays
Zoolights: 5-9 p.m. daily through Jan. 1 (closed Dec. 24); Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium, 5400 N. Pearl St., Tacoma. $10 gate; $8.50 online and Fred Meyer. pdza.org.
Fantasy Lights: 5:30-9 p.m. through Jan. 1; Spanaway Park, 14905 Bresemann Blvd. S., Spanaway. $14 a vehicle. co.pierce.wa.us.
Wild Waves Holiday Lights: Evenings through Dec. 31 (closed Dec. 24-25), singalong 7 and 8 p.m.; Wild Waves Theme Park, 36201 Enchanted Parkway S., Federal Way. $14.99 at gate; $9.99 online (plus tax); free ages 3 and under. wildwaves.com.
Browns Point Holiday Lights Contest
When: Closes Tuesday.
Rules: Must live in North East Tacoma or Browns Point. Top four displays chosen by panel of local judges. There are $1,350 in prizes from local businesses.
To enter: Send your address to David Berg at firstname.lastname@example.org, 253-234-4289 or at the Friends of NE Tacoma/Browns Point Facebook group (ask to join).
To see lights: Find addresses on the map at tinyurl.com/jjx4byh.