Lights, music, action: These KC-area home Christmas displays are awe-inspiring

“You get everything up, and you look out, and you say, ‘Oh, I should add something there,’
” Bruce Williams of Shawnee says about his home’s holiday display, which is computer controlled. The display is in the 6300 block of Millbrook Avenue.
“You get everything up, and you look out, and you say, ‘Oh, I should add something there,’ ” Bruce Williams of Shawnee says about his home’s holiday display, which is computer controlled. The display is in the 6300 block of Millbrook Avenue. The Kansas City Star

In a lot of ways, the manner in which Mike Arnott goes about decorating his Shawnee home for the holidays isn’t so different from how every other homeowner goes about it.

He starts by pulling the various boxes of lights from his garage. He recruits his 14-year-old son, Dylan, to help set everything up. And he spends a couple of weekends in November braving the cold in an effort to turn his front yard into a veritable winter wonderland.

Of course, what differentiates the 45-year-old father of two from other holiday home decorators is the final product.

For Arnott and a small collection of other enthusiasts, no longer are lights, ladder and staple gun enough to make a display sing. To produce a truly awe-inspiring show, you’d better be equipped with everything from computer software to FM transmitters to the most cutting-edge lights — as well as the countless hours necessary to program a display that can be synchronized to holiday music.

“It’s really evolved over the last seven, eight years,” says Paul Sessel, who owns the commercial Christmas lighting company Creative Displays Inc., based in Overland Park. “You can animate faces, you can animate cartoons, you can scroll messages — ‘Merry Christmas.’ Just real elaborate effects.”

The most elaborate home displays involve tens of thousands of lights, a moving, ever-changing show in which every light strand can be manipulated to carry out a specific function, everything working in concert to produce a vibrant, multifaceted production.

Facilitating such a noteworthy display is no small endeavor.

The local “Christmas-aholics” as Sessel dubs them, are a tight-knit group of enthusiasts who chat year-round on various Christmas-related Internet forums, are featured on a website (www.kansastravel.org/kansascitychristmasdisplays.htm) highlighting Johnson County home displays and even get together in person to discuss their craft.

Arnott, for instance, who happened into the extravagant-Christmas-light world just a few years ago, is part of a group of 15 or so that meets every two years, barbecuing while they talk about the newest Christmas-related bells and whistles. And there are others, too, who have gotten together to go view competing displays.

“It’s everything from old retired electrical engineers to school teachers just wanting to get into it,” says John Peterson, whose display in Buckner features roughly 16,000 lights and allows visitors to listen to music via FM transmitter. “You have to have a little electrical knowledge so you don’t fry yourself, but it’s really not difficult.”

For years, Arnott had decorated sparsely for Christmas. But a few years back, he came across a YouTube video depicting a particularly imaginative display.

“Most people say, ‘That’s cool’ and move on,” Arnott says. “I said, ‘That’s cool; how do you do it?’”

With no real background in electrical engineering — he works as a machinery salesman in the woodworking industry — he essentially taught himself. He purchased a computer program called Light-O-Rama, tinkering with it from his hotel room during work trips throughout the year.

He gradually learned, and as time passed, the display grew into what it is today: a lavish collection of lights and animation that have become the toast of his suburban Shawnee neighborhood.

In all, there are 26,280 individual lights (good for just over two miles of light strands), 208 extension cords (or a mile and a half’s worth), and an extra $200 tacked on to the monthly electric bill. There are sizable Christmas trees and candy-cane wheels, and thanks to a low-wattage FM transmitter stationed just inside the house, those passing by can tune their car radio dials to 107.5 and hear the music that is synchronized to the light show.

While computer software has made elaborate home displays more accessible to the average Joe, however, it has done little to cut the amount of time required to mount such a display.

It’s not uncommon for homeowners to start programming their displays in January for the following Christmas. A simple 15-second introduction can take hours to prepare, and for shows that last 10 minutes, Sessel says, there might have been as many as 100 hours of programming involved.

“Whatever effect you want it to have,” says Peterson, “you have to tell it when to do it.”

Like anything, meanwhile, things are ever-evolving.

Each year, new products are introduced, or old ones are improved, and the Christmas-aholics keep dreaming about going bigger and brighter next Christmas.

Sometimes, they can’t wait that long. After putting up an elaborate display at his home near Shawnee Mission Parkway and Woodland Drive in Shawnee this November, Bruce Williams has occasionally made his way back into the yard, making small additions and adjustments.

“You get everything up, and you look out, and you say, ‘Oh, I should add something there,’” says Williams. “It’s a sickness.”

Sickness or not, for those who slave over such displays, it’s a labor of love. Though the most elaborate displays can cost “well into five figures” to produce, according to Sessel, many of those interviewed said the final product makes the time and effort well worth it — and there’s also a philanthropic slant, as many shows take donations that are then turned over to charity.

About the only down side, in fact, is what happens when Christmas passes and New Year’s arrives and it’s time for the array of cords and lights to be re-boxed and stuffed inside the garage until next time.

As Arnott puts it, “Pulling it down sucks. It’s cold and nobody volunteers to help, because it’s over.”

To reach Dugan Arnett, call 816-234-4039 or send email to darnett@kcstar.com.

See the displays

Arnott house: the 12600 block of West 70th Terrace in Shawnee.

Williams house: the 6300 block of Millbrook Avenue in Shawnee.

Peterson house: 3019 N. Elsea Smith Road in Buckner.

Related stories from Kansas City Star