There must be something in the East Texas air, water or latitudinal orientation that drives people to distraction around the holidays.
The issue is lights. Christmas lights. Lots of Christmas lights.
Lots and LOTS of Christmas lights.
Perhaps most well known of the East Texas Christmas displays is the Wonderland of Lights Festival in Marshall, Texas. An estimated 12 million lights in more than 400 displays seem to illuminate the entire city at night. The event traces its roots back to the mid-1980’s as a means to heighten the spirits of a community ravaged by the economic hardship of the times.
In Lindale, Texas, the Santa Land drive-through park has been dazzling visitors since 1995. It started out as a family venture and has turned into a popular holiday destination.
Another widely-acclaimed holiday destination in Texas is Santa’s Wonderland in south College Station. And, not surprisingly, it traces its roots to an East Texas influence.
As a Texas A&M student in the early 1990’s, Scott Medlin spent his Christmas breaks putting up lights at his family’s home...in Lindale.
And, as you might guess, the Medlins prided themselves in showcasing their home with lots and lots of lights.
“My brother and I would try to outdo ourselves every year’ Medlin said, “We’d buy out all the shelves at the local Wal-Mart and then go to the next town and do the same.”
Soon after graduating from A&M, Medlin found a piece of land for sale not far from the old site of the Texas World Speedway along State Highway 6 south of College Station. He convinced his parents to help him purchase the property to create a drive-through Christmas park in Aggieland...a lot like Santa Land in his hometown.
Once the land was bought, the Medlins invested more money to ready the property. They opened the doors to Santa’s Wonderland in 1998.
It took Central Texans a while to get familiar with the concept of a super-sized holiday-lighting extravaganza.
“Many nights that first year, I’d get off work”–Scott Medlin served as an advisor at the Texas A&M Mays Business School–”come out here and wait (for customers). “We’d sit and wouldn’t see a car for an hour.”
Medlin estimates the park attracted about 5,000 people that first year.
Twenty years later, Santa’s Wonderland attracts nearly a quarter-million visitors during its two-months-long holiday season. On a November night in 2018, that number included my wife and me, and our seven-year-old granddaughter.
Let me share that experience.
Holding a PhD in industrial and systems engineering, my wife, Nancy, is the consummate researcher. Whether assessing the affects of spaceflight on the human body–before becoming a professor of practice at Texas A&M, Nancy flew four times on the Space Shuttle as a NASA astronaut–or switching to a new shampoo, Nancy does her homework.
When we decided to take our visiting granddaughter, Coco, on a nearby Christmas-season excursion, Nancy explored several options and landed on Santa’s Wonderland.
I assumed we could just “show up,” so we waited until the Saturday afternoon of Coco’s always-too-brief weekend stay. Nancy went online and discovered that parking reservations were recommended.
“A reservation to park?” I queried. Then I remembered the long line of cars that I had seen on the Highway 6 frontage road the year before.
“That sounds like a good idea,” I concluded.
Nancy checked. “Parking is sold out until 9 p.m.”
We both knowingly nodded. “A popular place.”
Perfect for our precious girl!
Since it wasn’t a school or work night, we decided Coco and her grandparents could handle a late reservation to visit the park. Nancy bought our tickets online, pre-paid for parking and we were set to go.
A note to those who’ve never experienced Santa’s Wonderland: Reserved parking is a very good idea.. While “walk-up” customers park offsite and then take shuttle busses to the park, the on-site reserved parking in the “Prancer” lot makes things a good bit easier, both in coming and going.
We followed the throng with 9 p.m. parking reservations and found the park’s main entrance, which was like stepping back in time. Admittance occurs along a vista that looks a lot like every “Main Street” you’ve seen in an Old West movie. The only difference from how Hollywood portrays the past: every nook, cranny and roof line of Santa’s Wonderland were bathed in the magical glow of sparkling Christmas lights.
Lights spelled out, “Merry TEXAS Christmas Y’all.”
Inside the grounds was more wonder than my grandfatherly imagination could grasp.
The old-Texas ambience was everywhere: in the architecture, the cowboy hats which adorned the heads of virtually every park employee, and in the fire pit around which numerous park-goers–most of whom are from outside the College Station area–warmed themselves on a chilly night.
Some were even roasting marshmallows. Nice touch!
The only thing that seemed a little out of place in this holiday passage back in time was the movie screen affixed to the facade of a barn.
At least I think it was a facade. Most everything else at Santa’s Wonderland looked like the real deal to me.
In front of the movie screen, rows of rustic wooden benches provided seating for what appeared to be a continual loop of the popular holiday-themed film, “A Christmas Story.”
Ralphie! Another nice touch!
After taking in all the initial sites, sounds and smells–there is a plethora of food concessions on site–Coco tugged at my arm, bringing me back to my present-time reality.
“Where’s the train?” she asked.
The train in question-a larger-than-life replica of something kids once found under their Christmas trees, is a popular attraction.
Frankly, everything is a “popular attraction.”
By the time we found the train, and despite what I would call the “late hour,” there was a long line to ride the train.
“Are you sure you want to wait?” Nancy asked Coco.
“Yes, ma’am,” our granddaughter replied, peering up at her “Grammy” with her beautiful brown eyes.
During our wait, we watched a series of riders test their skills on the park’s pair of mechanical bulls.
“I want to do that!” Coco said excitedly. Nancy smiled and looked at me.
“Does Duderino want to ride, too?” my wife queried.
I married into both parenthood and grandparenthood at the same time. Coco is Nancy’s only daughter’s only daughter. Never having been a father before, I wasn’t sure what to make of the notion of becoming a grandfather when Nancy and I tied our knot–very firmly, I might ad.
One day, I suggested that Coco could call me “Duderino,” a reference to the Jeff Bridges character in the movie, “The Big Lebowski.”
Bridges plays Jeffrey Lebowski, a middle-aged California slacker who goes by the moniker “The Dude,” or “El Duderino if you’re not into the whole brevity thing,” one of the signature lines from one of the most quotable films of all time.
Coco thought “Duderino” was a fun word to say. In time, as she’s grown older, she’s shortened it to “Duder.”
So, eventually, Grammy, Duderino and Coco climbed into one of the Santa’s Wonderland train cars. Each was in the shape of a large square box, covered of course in Christmas lights, powered by, no doubt, a heckuva long extension chord.
Or, perhaps an onboard power supply. Whichever, our car was a bit of a cramped space for those greater than five feet in height and I managed to bang my head getting in.
Which gave me a thought.
“Just like the Shuttle,” I observed aloud. Nancy smiled without confirming my assessment. Let’s just say she’s a bit more comfortable within the confines of a small space than I am.
There are no train tracks to guide the Santa’s Wonderland train. That would be a tripping hazard for park visitors since the train goes where pedestrians go...on rubber tires.
The ride was enjoyable and gave us a better reference to the park. At one darkened turn, up ahead in the distance we saw shimmering lights, and an unmistakable vista of snow.
My appreciation for Santa’s Wonderland grew even more.
“Snow...in Texas?” I queried aloud.
After completing the train ride, we were determined to learn what all the snow was about. But, before we could begin making our way toward the curious site, Coco tugged again.
“Can I ride the bull?”
For the moment, I put Coco off, nudging her ahead.
“Let’s go see the snow!” I encouraged.
I figured a bull ride was in Coco’s future, and probably mine as well. I was certain Nancy would force me to ride one of the mechanized beasts and I was concerned with what I had already seen. The park personnel operating the bulls seemed to take sadistic pleasure in spinning adult riders to and fro until they were catapulted from their bullish perch.
I wanted none of that, or at least to delay the inevitable as long as possible.
Moving ahead, we passed a pair of giant snow globes. “Don’t go that way,” I cautioned Coco, “you’ll get trapped inside one...forever.”
“Don’t scare the child,” Nancy admonished. Coming to my defense, Coco said, “Grammy, I know Duderino isn’t serious.”
As we made our way toward the snowbanks of what the park calls the “Frostbite’s Mountain tubing experience,” we encountered an irresistible distraction.
A hayride...with no waiting to climb aboard.
“Look, no line!” I proclaimed. I had no real idea of where the hayride would take us, but wherever that might be, we were headed there soon.
Little did I know the hayride was the “main event” at Santa’s Wonderland. It’s why the attraction was created with everything else now around it a wise Medlin-family investment in growing their wondrous enterprise.
Pulled along by tractor at a leisurely pace, the hayride provided witness to what must have been millions of Christmas lights decorating dozens of scenes. These featured polar bears and airplanes, longhorn steers and Lone Star flags, and singing penguins and magical puffs of electric smoke from a gigantic ghostly toy train.
Coco’s eyes stayed wide in wonderment, but I’m certain not as wide as my own.
Such a spellbinding experience was the hayride that Fostbite’s snowy mountain scene– although surreal–was a wee bit of a letdown, at least for me.
But, not for Coco.
The “ride”–a tubular slide down a reasonably gentle slope–appeared to be open to all ages, but Nancy and I thought it was more kids’ stuff. So, I lofted a giant inflatable rubber torus–”a surface of revolution generated by revolving a circle in three-dimensional space about an axis coplanar with the circle (think ‘donut-shaped”)–upon my shoulders and marched up the stairs to the tubing platform with Coco in tow.
I looked for the most gentle-faced park employee to direct Coco’s descent and placed the tube down next to her.
“This is our granddaughter,” I said. “She wants to ride,” I added, stating the obvious.
“You bet!” came the enthusiastic reply from the young lady who, no doubt, was using employment at the park to supplement her college experience at Texas A&M.
Before I could give safety instructions to Coco, she plopped onto the tube and said, “Let’s go!”
With a push of her boot, the attendant sent Coco down the hill.
Her top speed was nothing like the bobsled ride my wife and I took at the Olympic Sliding Center in Whistler the previous year.
Coco had a ball.
After a brief time in the adjacent “snowbank” and experiencing several giggling falls, I was ready to call it an evening.
Wait, I just reread that last sentence. Let me be clear. It was Coco who giggled while playing in the man-made snow, not me. But, both of our eyelids were beginning to sag. The hour was late.
But, we had one more thing to do.
I’m proud to report Coco stayed on her mechanical bull well beyond the usual eight-second time frame. She has a gift of body control and balance which has made her an accomplished young diver, following in her Grammy’s own youthful footsteps.
I on the other hand, am lucky to stay upright with my two feet planted firmly on the ground.
I successfully begged off the mechanical bull ride, but only by promising both Nancy and Coco that I would be up for the experience next year.
“Ho, ho, ho!”