Gary Harrington bought a small, electric trolley from China five years ago.
He was nearing retirement, and after suffering a stroke, he knew he’d need something to keep himself active. He imagined taking Thurston County residents on tours, driving in parades, and using the red vehicle to shuttle wedding guests to and from parking areas.
“It’s one of those wild things,” Harrington said. “And my wife said OK, so I did it.”
Harrington bought the trolley online, and had it shipped to Nevada. There, it was loaded onto a truck and driven to Olympia. He rented a garage downtown to store the trolley.
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Three years ago, he retired from his job installing telephone systems for the state. Now, he works about three days a week, driving the trolley for weddings, pub crawls, retirement home open houses and parades.
And in December, Harrington takes on the role of Santa Claus, spreading the holiday spirit by leading tours of local Christmas light displays.
Last Friday, Harrington took a group of passengers to look at a large light display in the Ken Lake neighborhood on the west side of Olympia. The trolley, decked out in bells and lights, left the Red Lion Hotel just as it was getting dark.
Harrington guided the trolley along surface streets, waving at motorists as he passed. The trolley’s top speed is 35 miles per hour, so Harrington doesn’t take it on the freeway.
“The state didn’t know how to license it at first,” Harrington said. “But after three months, they gave me a regular old license plate.”
Harrington and his passengers “oohed” and “aahed” at the smaller light displays in the Ken Lake neighborhood, but the real destination was a home at 228 Lakemoor Drive SW. The homeowner, Chris McGough, has been elaborately decorating his home for 10 years. It takes 40,000 lights and three weeks to set up the Lights at Ken Lake display.
The lights flash in time to music, including a Star Wars mix and a song sung by McGough’s daughter, 9-year-old Lilly.
The display is so large that it’s sponsored, this year by O Bee Credit Union and Eastside Big Tom.
“It’s expensive to run a display like this,” McGough said.
When it’s not raining, Santa Claus sits in a sleigh in McGough’s yard, and a professional photographer takes photos of children who come to visit. While it’s free to look at the lights and get a photo taken with Santa, McGough does accept donations for the Thurston County Food Bank.
He said that last year he collected $2,500 in cash donations.
By the time Harrington drove his passengers back to the Red Lion, it was raining and the temperature had dropped. One passing motorist rolled down his car window at a red light and said, “You all look really cold.”
Driving the trolley in the summer, when it’s warmer and drier, is a lot more comfortable, Harrington said. But nothing beats driving children to look at Christmas lights.
“The kids seem to really love it,” Harrington said. “And I’ve had a lot of fun, too.”