Experience Christmas cheer and give to local charities—without leaving your car.
What began with one family’s genuine love of Christmas lights and the holiday season has now become a drive-through lights show with millions of lights powered by around 40,000 computer channels. If you’re driving on I-65 near the I-10 connector in Mobile, Alabama, during the holiday season, you can’t help but notice a giant display of Christmas lights right off the interstate. The display is called Christmas Nights of Lights, and it’s much more than your average light installation.
Richie King and his wife Tracy own and run the business, which has a second location in Cincinnati, Ohio, that’s also operated by their family. If you saw the spectacular show, you might not guess that the team behind it is a small family-run business rather than a major corporation. Visitors to Christmas Nights of Lights turn their car radios to a certain station and marvel as the light show moves, dances, and even sings along with the Christmas songs playing in their car. But how does it all work?
The Christmas Nights of Lights team has its own radio transmitter, so they pick a station in the area that no one is broadcasting on and tune their transmitter to that station. King describes the show as “a silent movie.”
The choreography of the lights with the music on the radio is what makes the display incredible. Without the music, the installation may look like “another blinking lights show,” but “once you tune the radio, it comes to life,” Richie says.
The real trick to the show is the computer programming behind the installation. Programming millions of Christmas lights with specific songs takes the team hundreds of hours. There are 186 computer boxes and 15 miles (15 miles!) of chords that power the 1.7-mile route. Visitors usually drive through the route in about 25-30 minutes.
The Kings pick the songs that play during the show themselves, but they take requests from viewers and add new songs and design elements each year. We hear that Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) from the beloved National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation will be incorporated in the show for the first time. Tracy is the creative mind behind the show’s design, and you ‘ll have to see her newest addition in person. For Christmas Nights in Lights’ fourth season, Tracy dreamed up two 21-foot tall Christmas trees. If the height wasn’t impressive enough, these trees can actually play video. While the popular Disney song Let It Go is playing, the trees will show Elsa in action on their screens. Santa and a few other holiday favorites will make appearances, too, but you’ll have to make a trip to Mobile to find out who else made the list.
Let It Go is one of Richie’s favorite songs to view during the show. Since the weather is never too frigid in Mobile, kids can gaze out rolled-down windows and open sunroofs during the drive-through. When the most popular song from Frozen plays, “it sounds like a 200-kids children’s choir singing at the top of their lungs.” Adults, don’t worry—the music selection at Christmas Nights of Lights is varied for the enjoyment of all ages. From classic and traditional Christmas songs, to newer, upbeat versions of them, to picks from the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, Richie says, “if there’s a song that comes on and you don’t like it, you’ll like the next one.”
So whether you’re taking a carful of kids, driving through on a date night, or bringing the grandparents, every member of the family will enjoy the Christmas Nights of Lights show. But that’s not Christmas Nights of Lights’ whole story.
With lines of cars coming to see the lights every night they’re in town, you can imagine that the business is making quite a chunk of change. That’s not on the company’s list of priorities, though. Christmas Nights of Lights has contributed to multiple charities every season since it began. Each year, the company works with local charities to find out how best it can help them. Christmas Nights of Lights has a Salvation Army kettle at the entrance (which has since become the charity’s top-earning spot in the city of Mobile), gives charities hundreds of free tickets to sell and keep the profits, and hosts nights dedicated to specific charities that receive proceeds. To us, the company's charitable acts embody the true spirit of the season. This year, the company is working with The Salvation Army, the Ronald McDonald House of Mobile, and the University of South Alabama Children’s and Women’s Hospital, but Richie is always open to more charities joining the lineup. The light-up route is even opening a day early to host the third annual Christmas Nights of Lights 5K and Fun Run, benefitting United Cerebral Palsy of Mobile.
Christmas Nights of Lights will run from Nov. 10, 2017- Jan. 1, 2018, from 5:30-10 p.m., but they won’t turn you away if you’re still in line when the clock hits 10.
The event is $6 per person (cash or credit), and kids ages 3 and under are free. If the weather outside is frightful, no worries—Christmas Nights of Lights will be on rain or shine.