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Waikele Lights
Waikele Lights
Terry Reis

Ryan Olsen doesn’t spend most of his cash around the holidays on gifts or plane tickets. He instead shells out thousands on the boisterous light display that covers his family’s Idaho home.

It’s a worthwhile investment for the Subaru general sales manager. So much so that he hopes to move to a bigger home soon to better accommodate his 100,000 sparkling lights.

“A lot of people think we’re crazy,” Olsen says. “We’re planning on building our next house and planning a lot of it around the light show.”

Olsen is one of many holiday-obsessives around the country who spend thousands each year and devote countless hours to develop elaborate Christmas lights displays. Money spoke with five dedicated light show creators who have decorated their homes for anywhere from five years to four decades, all while adapting to new technology, managing electricity bill costs, dabbling in programming, creating fresh designs, curating the perfect playlist, and balancing a regular job on top of all of it.

They enlist their children to help put up the lights and self-fund the projects on their own. Many have appeared on ABC’s Great Christmas Light Fight, an annual competition between decorators, and have seen an influx of visitors as a result. They swap tips and tricks through forums on a website called Planet Christmas, and the particularly dedicated individuals travel to a Christmas expo each year to learn about the latest upgrades. Some have even started their own businesses — ones that could replace their current full-time jobs or help them ease into retirement.

These Christmas display fanatics see these light shows as a way to give back to their community and raise money for charity — and none of them have plans to stop creating these displays any time soon.

“We realized how much happiness and joy we were able to spread to the community,” says Keith Yoshida, who operates a street-wide displayed called Waikele Lights in Hawaii. “That’s what has been fueling our energy.”

WaikeleLights from Terry Reis on Vimeo.

Spending thousands on electricity bills, radio ads, and new lights

For many of these decorators, the biggest spending comes the first year they upgrade from a regular string of lights around their home to a luminous display.

Olsen spent around $3,000 six years ago to get his display started. Now, he saves up each month to afford new components and fresh lights — costing around $400 to $500 in total each year.

“We save up all year long for it,” Olsen says. “It’s our gift to ourselves.”

The costs aren’t just incurred by setting up the display itself. Olsen pays around $1,500 or more a year for local radio advertising, and, at a much smaller cost, makes signs to place around his neighborhood to help direct traffic and inform visitors where to park.

Electricity expenses are also something to consider. Mike Ziemkowski, who decorates his Sherman Oaks, Calif., home with thousands of LED lights, custom-made animatronics, and produces a new music video that follows the music, racks up a couple hundred dollars more than usual on his electric bill at this time of the year. (That bill would be more expensive, though, if not for the LED lights, he says.)

Costs can add up, too, when you factor in buying candy canes and hot chocolate to hand out. The more popular displays can draw hundreds of people each night and often decorators will pay more for security, local law enforcement, permits, or traffic control, depending on what’s needed.

Sightseers who have made visiting these homes a tradition each year are often aware of these costs and offer cash to help fund the annual event. But most of these homeowners use these displays to encourage charitable giving. Olsen anticipates he will help deliver two to three truckloads of donations from visitors for Toys for Tots this year – a significant amount more than he gathered at his house in the past. Yoshida, who operates the street-wide display in Hawaii, works with his neighbors each year to determine a nonprofit organization to collect funds for.

“We’ve been very blessed so this is something we enjoy doing,” Yoshida, who works at Par Hawaii energy company by day, says. “We look at this now as a gift to our community. We really don’t think about sacrifices.”

Turning an electric hobby into an epic business

Creating these elaborate displays is more than just a hobby for some. Take Brian Larsen and Ryan Kasper-Cook. They live in different homes in different states — the former in Illinois, the latter in Minnesota. Larsen is an award-winning landscape designer, while Kasper-Cook is a programmer and the president of an internet company. But, after they separately appeared on ABC’s Great Christmas Light Fight, they got in touch and decided to start their own business.

The duo now operates Epic Light Shows, a relatively new company that creates commercial light shows for productions worth $50,000 minimum. They launched in 2017 and have already had to turn down jobs due to time constraints. With their quick growth, they say, Epic Light Shows will likely soon become a full-time gig for both of them.

“It’s not about the money,” says Kasper-Cook. “It’s about putting on these awesome productions and giving someone a tradition they can come back to year after year and be wowed.”

Ziemkowski, the decorator in California, has also used his talents to earn some extra cash. The craftsman creates his own animatronics — most notably “DJ Jingles,” a character that appears to serve as emcee in each of his shows. After other designers took notice and asked for his help, Ziemkowski started selling his animatronic snowmen and elves online for at least $1,500 each, using a distributor based in Kansas.

It’s “not enough to do as a full-time business, especially while living in Los Angeles,” Ziemkowski says, “but it’s something to keep me going or eventually retire to.”

Lights On Display 2018 from Lights on Display on Vimeo.

Making memories for themselves and others

Ziemkowski has been doing this for nearly 40 years, starting back in middle school when he played a key role in working on his family’s display. It’s been a life-long, family-centric tradition for him — so much so that his 13-minute-long show this year heavily features photos of his family, including images of his mother, who passed away earlier this year.

“I love being able to put on a show and having kids here and see their parents enjoying it, too,” Ziemkowski says. “It’s getting busier and busier each year, but, so far, it hasn’t fallen apart.”

Despite the high costs, hours of work, constant maintenance, year-round planning, and hectic holiday schedule, these decorators aren’t deterred. It’s a long-standing custom — and they want to do everything they can to play their part in the traditions of the families who visit them every year.

“We’ll be doing this as long as we’re physically able to,” Olsen says. “Why be a Grinch on Christmas? Let’s do our part.”