David Wells starts putting up his Christmas lights in August each year. While it may seem a tad early to be getting into the festive spirit, too much time is almost never enough when your display contains more than two million lights.
As the event set-up manager at Hunter Valley Gardens, David is part of the team and leader of the hard-working muscle behind the largest Christmas Lights display in the Southern Hemisphere.
The Christmas Lights Spectacular takes about three months to be physically set up by David and his team plus the other dedicated Garden workers totalling 25 people.
However, when you take the pre-planning into account, including sourcing new additions, tagging and testing all of the lights and ensuring everything complies with strict safety standards, as well as the pack-down at the end of the season, organising the Christmas Lights is almost a year-round job.
“We start in August, usually the second or third week in August, we start setting up the string lights and add in the trees. Then as we get closer to the event, we start putting out some of the other displays, the larger displays,” David said.
“When we get to October, that's when nearly everything comes out; then we look at doing all of the powering up.
“There’s about 12 people in my team that help with the physical set-up, I just mostly manage and organise them, and I worked out that for the set-up we basically do about 6500 man hours.
“Packing up is a lot quicker. We usually pack up within six weeks, which is about half the time because with setting up it's a lot more detailed in regards to putting strings in trees and putting displays out. When we're packing up, it’s a lot less time consuming so usually by the first or second week in March; we'll have everything packed away.”
David has worked at Hunter Valley Gardens for around 18 years and has been involved with setting up the lights since the idea was first dreamed up 12 years ago.
A lot has changed over that time, with the display growing from a far more modest version to one that now encompasses more than two million lights and 16 major displays, spread over 5 hectares of the world-renowned gardens.
Each year the event grows a little bigger, with more lights and new features designed to enhance what is already a truly magical atmosphere.
David is responsible for planning where every single light goes, from the tiniest string lights to the towering 12m, 9m and 6m high “mega trees” that are truly a sight to behold.
“The team and I organise where everything goes,” he said.
“There are certain things that stay in the same spot, that are designed for certain areas, for example, the 12 Days of Christmas display stays in the border garden because it's basically designed for that space, while there are a few other areas that stay the same because of the size of the displays.
“Then we have new stuff each year that we need to put out and build, and there are some lights that fail that we take out and replace with newer displays.
“But with all of that, it just comes down to pre-organising to have a look at where we need lights, looking at the best opportunity and the best viewing area for each display.”
David also works with lighting manufacturers to create custom-designed displays for Hunter Valley Gardens, such as the giant world globe, which spans 4m in diametre and is the centrepiece of the spectacular Around the World display.
“There isn’t a lights catalogue that you can go through and pick everything from. They’ll have pictures of certain lights and certain designs that they've built for people in different parts of either Australia or over the world, but then there's also specific displays that we want custom made.
“If there's a design or concept we come up with, we can take it to the lighting companies and say, ‘We’re looking at this, can you make it?’
“We've had some different things over the years, like the globe for our Around the World display, where we basically just said to them this is what we’re after, and they've made it for us.”
David said the 2018 display was the biggest and best yet, with all the traditional favourites including Princess Castle and Carriage, Candyland, the Fairy Garden and Santa’s Workshop, as well as a host of new additions that help the display feel fresh and new, especially for those who love to return year after year.
New lights include a magnificent 5m-tall bauble perched in between the amphitheatre and the formal garden, as well as a large rocking horse and a selection of giant stars. Hot air balloons and parachutes hang from the branches of the trees, while oversized rainbows and a magical unicorn and carriage add a colourful, fairy-tale atmosphere to the display.
A variety of live entertainment and a collection of incredible rides including a Ferris wheel, swing chair, old-fashioned carousel, super slide and inflatable zones will be sure to keep the kids busy, while a selection of tasty food and beverage stalls will be on hand for those who work up an appetite exploring the lights.
The Christmas Lights Spectacular was officially switched on at the start of November and will run through until January 26, 2019.
The lights open at 5.30pm each day (apart from Christmas Day), with tickets available for the display alone or as a dual day/night pass, which also gives you access to the explore the fabulous floral displays of the garden between 9am and 4pm.
Tokens for individual rides are $6 each, while unlimited ride wristbands are $15. The rides are open during the Christmas Lights Spectacular from 5.30pm – 9.45pm daily. For more information visit www.hvg.com.au
Images by Chris Eifes