There must be something in the East Texas air, water, or latitudinal orientation that drives people to distraction around the holidays.
The issue is lights. Christmas lights. Lots of Christmas lights.
Lots and LOTS of Christmas lights.
Perhaps most well-known of the East Texas Christmas displays is the Wonderland of Lights Festival in Marshall, Texas. An estimated 12 million lights in more than 400 displays seem to illuminate the entire city at night. The event traces its roots back to the mid-1980s as a means to heighten the spirits of a community ravaged by the economic hardship of the times.
In Lindale, Texas, the Santa Land drive-through park has been dazzling visitors since 1995. It started out as a family venture and has turned into a popular holiday destination.
Another widely-acclaimed holiday destination in Texas is Santa’s Wonderland in south College Station. And not surprisingly, it traces its roots to an East Texas influence.
As a Texas A&M student in the early 1990’s, Scott Medlin spent his Christmas breaks putting up lights at his family’s home…in Lindale.
And as you might guess, the Medlins prided themselves in showcasing their home with lots and lots of lights.
“My brother and I would try to outdo ourselves every year,” Medlin said, “We’d buy out all the shelves at the local Walmart and then go to the next town and do the same.”
Soon after graduating from A&M, Medlin found a piece of land for sale not far from the old site of the Texas World Speedway along State Highway 6 south of College Station. He convinced his parents to help him purchase the property to create a drive-through Christmas park in Aggieland...a lot like Santa Land in his hometown.
Once the land was secured, the Medlins invested more money to ready the property for visitors…hopefully by the thousands. They turned on the lights at Santa’s Wonderland in 1998.
It took Central Texans a while to get familiar with the concept of a super-sized holiday-lighting extravaganza.
“Many nights that first year, I’d get off work”—Scott Medlin served as an advisor at the Texas A&M Mays Business School—“come out here and wait (for customers). We’d sit and wouldn’t see a car for an hour.”
Medlin estimates the park attracted about 5,000 people that first year.
Twenty years later, Santa’s Wonderland attracts nearly a quarter-million visitors during its two-month-long holiday season. On a November night in 2018, that number included my wife and me, and our seven-year-old granddaughter.
Let me share that experience.
Holding a Ph.D. in industrial and systems engineering, my wife, Nancy, is the consummate researcher. Whether assessing the effects of spaceflight on the human body—before becoming a professor of practice at Texas A&M, Nancy flew four times on the Space Shuttle as a NASA astronaut—or switching to a new shampoo, Nancy does her homework.
When we decided to take our visiting granddaughter, Coco, on a nearby Christmas-season excursion, Nancy explored several options and landed on Santa’s Wonderland.
I assumed we could just “show up,” so we waited until the Saturday afternoon of Coco’s always-too-brief weekend stay. Nancy went online and discovered that parking reservations were recommended.
“A reservation to park?” I queried. Then I remembered the long line of cars that I had seen on the Highway 6 frontage road near Santa’s Wonderland the year before.
“That sounds like a good idea,” I concluded.
Nancy checked. “Parking is sold out until 9 p.m.”
We both knowingly nodded. “A popular place.”
Perfect for our precious girl!
Since it wasn’t a school or work night, we decided Coco and her grandparents could handle a 9 p.m. reservation to visit the park. Nancy bought our tickets online, pre-paid for parking, and we were set to go.
A note to those who’ve never experienced Santa’s Wonderland: Reserved parking is a very good idea. While “walk-up” customers park offsite and then take shuttle buses to the park, the on-site reserved parking in the “Prancer” lot makes things a good bit easier, both in coming and going.
Once there, we followed our fellow latecomers and found the park’s main entrance, which was like stepping back in time. Admittance occurs along a vista that looks a lot like every “Main Street” you’ve seen in an “Old West” movie. The only difference from how Hollywood portrays the past: every nook, cranny, and roof line of Santa’s Wonderland were lined with sparkling Christmas lights.
Near the entrance, lights spelled out, “Merry TEXAS Christmas, y’all.”
Inside the grounds was more wonder than my grandfatherly imagination could grasp.
The old-Texas ambience was everywhere: in the architecture, the cowboy hats which adorned the heads of virtually every park employee, and in the fire pit around which numerous park-goers—most of whom are from outside the College Station area—warmed themselves on a chilly night.
Some were even roasting marshmallows. Nice touch!
The only thing that seemed a little out of place in this holiday journey back in time was the movie screen affixed to the back of a barn. Rows of rustic wooden benches provided seating for what appeared to be a continual loop of the popular holiday-themed film, A Christmas Story.
Ralphie and his Daisy Red Ryder B-B Gun! Another nice touch!
After taking in all the initial sights, sounds, and smells—there is a plethora of food concessions on site—Coco tugged at my arm, bringing me back to my present-time reality.
“Where’s the train?” she asked.
The train we had seen in website photos–a larger-than-life replica of something kids once found under their Christmas trees–is a popular Wonderland attraction.
Frankly from our experience, everything is a “popular attraction.”
By the time we found the train, and despite what I would call the “late hour,” there was a long line to get on board.
“Are you sure you want to wait?” Nancy asked Coco.
“Yes, ma’am,” our granddaughter replied, peering up at her “Grammy” with her beautiful brown eyes.
During our wait we watched a series of riders test their skills on the park’s pair of mechanical bulls.
“I want to do that!” Coco said excitedly. Nancy smiled and looked at me.
“Does Duderino want to ride, too?” my wife queried.
I married into both parenthood and grandparenthood at the same time. Coco is Nancy’s only daughter’s only daughter. Never having been a father myself, I wasn’t sure what to make of the notion of becoming a grandfather when Nancy and I tied our knot.
A knot very firmly and lovingly tied, I might add.
One day, I suggested that Coco could call me “Duderino,” a reference to the Jeff Bridges character in the movie, The Big Lebowski.
Bridges plays Jeffrey Lebowski, a middle-aged California slacker who goes by the moniker “The Dude,” or “‘El Duderino,” if you’re not into the whole brevity thing,” one of the signature lines from one of the most quotable films of all time.
Coco thought “Duderino” was a fun word to say. In time, as she’s grown older, she’s shortened it to “Duder.”
It works. I’m officially “Duderino,” and not “Papa,” or “Grandpa,” or whatever else men with grandchildren typically go by.
With the question of bull-riding still unanswered, Grammy, Duderino, and Coco eventually climbed into one of the Santa’s Wonderland train cars. Each was in the shape of a large square box, covered of course in Christmas lights, powered by, no doubt, a heckuva long extension cord.
Our car was a bit of a cramped space and I managed to bang my head getting in.
Which gave me a thought.
“Just like the Space Shuttle,” I observed aloud. Nancy smiled without confirming my assessment. Let’s just say she’s a bit more comfortable within the confines of a small space than I am.
There are no train tracks to guide the Santa’s Wonderland train. That would be a tripping hazard for park visitors since the train goes where pedestrians go...on rubber tires.
The ride was enjoyable and gave us a good overview of the park. At one darkened turn I saw in the distance a shimmering light…and an unmistakable vista of snow.
My appreciation for Santa’s Wonderland ratcheted up a notch.
Snow...in Texas? How could this BE?
After completing the train ride, we were determined to learn what all the snow was about. But before we could begin making our way toward the curious sight, Coco tugged again.
“Can I ride the bull?”
For the moment, I put Coco off, nudging her ahead.
“Let’s go see the snow!” I encouraged.
I figured a bull ride was in Coco’s future and probably mine as well. I was certain Nancy would force me to ride one of the mechanized beasts and I was concerned with what I had already seen. The park personnel operating the bulls seemed to take sadistic pleasure in spinning adult riders to and fro until they were catapulted from their bullish perch.
I wanted none of that, or at least to delay the inevitable as long as possible.
Moving ahead, we passed a pair of giant snow globes. “Don’t go that way,” I cautioned Coco, “you’ll get trapped inside one...forever.”
“Don’t scare the child,” Nancy admonished. Coming to my defense, Coco said, “Grammy, I know Duderino isn’t serious.”
As we made our way toward the snowbanks of what the park calls the “Frostbite’s Mountain Tubing Experience,” we encountered an irresistible distraction.
A hayride...with no waiting to climb aboard.
“Look, no line!” I exclaimed. I had no real idea where the hayride would take us, but wherever that might be, we would get there without waiting in a line.
Little did I know the hayride was the “main event” at Santa’s Wonderland. It’s why the attraction was created, with everything else now around it a Medlin-family investment in growing their wondrous enterprise.
Pulled along by tractor at a leisurely pace, the hayride provided spectacle to what must have been millions of Christmas lights decorating dozens of scenes. These featured polar bears and airplanes, longhorn steers and Lone Star flags, singing penguins, and magical puffs of electric smoke from a gigantic ghostly toy train.
Coco’s eyes stayed wide in wonderment, but I’m certain not as wide as my own.
Such a spellbinding experience was the hayride that Frostbite’s snowy mountain scene—although still surreal—proved a wee bit of a letdown.
But not for Coco.
The “ride”—a tubular slide down a reasonably gentle slope—appeared to be open to all ages, but Nancy and I thought it was more kids’ stuff. So I lofted a giant inflatable rubber torus—“a surface of revolution generated by revolving a circle in three-dimensional space about an axis coplanar with the circle (think ‘donut-shaped’)”—upon my shoulders and marched up the stairs to the launch platform with Coco in tow.
I cast my gaze to find the most gentle-faced park employee to direct Coco’s descent and placed the tube down next to her.
“This is our granddaughter,” I said. “She wants to ride,” I added, stating the obvious.
“You bet!” came the enthusiastic reply from the young lady who possibly was using employment at the park to supplement her college expenses attending Texas A&M.
Before I could give safety instructions to Coco, she plopped onto the tube and said, “Let’s go!”
With a push of her boot, the attendant sent Coco down the hill.
Her top speed was nothing like the bobsled ride my wife and I had taken at the Olympic Sliding Center in Whistler the previous year. That experienced topped out at about 85 miles an hour and at least three or four G’s.
That sort of thing is no big deal to a former astronaut, which I am not.
Our future-astronaut granddaughter had a ball on Frostbite Mountain, which included an adjacent snowbank in which Coco experienced several giggling falls.
With the hour running late, Grammy and Duderino decided to call it an evening, but we had one more stop to make.
I’m proud to report Coco stayed on her mechanical bull to the end. She has a gift of body control and balance which has made her an accomplished young diver, following in her Grammy’s own youthful footsteps.
I, on the other hand, am lucky to stay upright with my two feet planted firmly on stable ground.
I successfully begged off the mechanical bull ride, but only by promising both Nancy and Coco that I would be up for the experience next year.
Maybe I’ll try snow-tubing at Santa’s Wonderland next time around and, unfortunately, pull a “hammy” in the process.
I can picture that I’ll do just about anything to avoid the embarrassment of being slung from the saddle of a mechanical bull.