By Susannah Gilbert
There’s nothing quite like holiday lights to brighten up a Wisconsin winter.
Driving through the dark and snow and happening upon a house lit up by holiday lights brings some unexpected magic to the season. Some Fox Cities residents take it much further than a simple string of white lights along the roof or porch railings, with thousands of strings of lights, music and other decorations.
For the past 10 years, Robert Blue of Darboy has been progressively creating more elaborate displays for his home, culminating in with a truly
fantastic light display that uses more than 60,000 lights with eight control boxes and a soundtrack of holiday music.
“The feedback I get from people is that ours is the most upbeat and most entertaining,” says Blue.
Not to be outdone, Lenny Ruel of Appleton and Ryan Fulcer of Kaukauna, who have both been creating holiday light displays for the past five years, are still in the process of expanding their already elaborate light displays.
Ruel uses around 60,000 lights and this year will be adding some blue lights to the existing green, red and white.
“I always move things around to keep it fresh,” he says.
Fulcer decorates not only his own house, but his neighbor’s, in an expansive display that included almost 40,000 lights. The display also
features a 25’ tall talking Christmas tree, as well as four 10’ trees and 22 smaller ones. He too will be adding to his display for 2013.
“I have a few new special effects for the smaller 10′ trees, as well as each year we replace old lights with LEDs.”
Blue, who has been assembling a display for twice as long is no longer so concerned with new additions.
“I don’t add much anymore,” he says, “except some new music.”
Blue emphasizes the importance of the music that accompanies the lights, saying that their display is so popular especially because of the selection of music they play, mostly rock, with favorites like the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. Ruel and Fulcer also use synchronized music with their lights. But synching the lights to the music can be a laborious process all on its own.
“It can take up to 20 hours to sequence one song,” says Ruel. “Things like that make it a year round project.”
Fulcer points out that the flashing displays can cut back on the power used by so many lights.
“Since the music is synchronized, there are not a lot of times when all the lights are on at the same time,” he says.
While there are concerns about the amount of power used by these vast displays, most who construct elaborate displays have shifted completely or almost completely to LED lights. Ruel says the holiday display adds only an extra $40 a month to his power bill, now that he is at 90% LED lights.
Blue has shifted completely to LEDs and says, “LEDs aren’t cheap at first, but they’re much more durable in the long run.”
Despite the switch to LED lights, there are still impacts to power use during the holiday months.
“It’s difficult to pinpoint the changes, but we are able to pull out some connection to Christmas lights,” says Brian Manthey of WE Energies.
In 2012, the company compared a week in November with a week in December, to try to determine what difference is made by the holidays. “We found about a 7% increase in average hourly demand between 5pm. and 10pm.”
WE Energies also has a holiday light cost calculator on their website, at we-energies.com/home/holiday_calculator.htm, that calculates the cost of various types and numbers of lights, as well as factoring in the number of hours lit.
Blue, Ruel and Fulcer have used the popularity of their light displays as opportunity to raise money for charitable causes. Ruel raises money for
the Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin, Fox Valley.
“I knew the potential of volume of traffic, so I figured I’d try to help someone out, and Christmas is about the kids,” he says.
One hundred percent of the donations from Fulcer’s display go to the Sarcoma Foundation of America, a decision he says was motivated by his sister’s battle with sarcoma.
The Blues raise money for Make-A-Wish and since 2009 they have raised enough money to fulfill eight wishes.
“We wanted to raise money for children,” says Blue. “I wouldn’t do it if it wasn’t for a good cause.”
Considering the amount of people who visit the light displays each year, the choice to fundraise for good causes is an obvious one.
“We see thousands and thousands of cars between Thanksgiving and New Year’s,” says Blue, “We’ve made $2,000 of donations in a single night.”
The countdown to Christmas has certainly begun for these families, as they must start assembling the holiday display as early as October. This early start date is made possible by the fact that the lights and supplies are largely purchased online, through bulk distributers.
Ruel says he begins putting up the sections on the house around the first weekend in October, but waits to put out the lawn ornaments until closer to Halloween.
“But I always start planning the next Christmas when I’m sitting outside and looking at that year’s lights,” he adds.
Fulcer says he starts organizing at Halloween and starts putting up the display the day after Thanksgiving.
Check out Lenny Ruel’s display in person at 149 Ramlen Court in Appleton or online at their facebook page: These Lights Ruel. Ryan Fulcer’s display can be found at 216 and 218 Newton Le Court in Kaukauna or online at CrazyLightShow.com.
Robert Blue and his family are in the process of selling their Darboy home but hope to be moved in time to set up a Christmas display at the new house.
Why do these families put so much time and energy into something that only happens once a year?
“Christmas is a magical time of the year and I feel this is a great way to make others happy,” says Fulcer. “It would be hard to stop now. So many kids and families depend on it each and every year.”