A River Ablaze

Posted On November 10, 2019

Five Weeks of Dazzling Holiday Lights

By Jackie Perrone

The “HIGH-LIGHT “of the holiday season? A sparkling, double feature called “Holiday Lights” on the shores of the beautiful Saluda River.

Riverbanks Zoo started it 33 years ago. Sixteen years later, Saluda Shoals Park joined the party. Today, the Midlands welcome all visitors with two dazzling light displays kicking off five weeks of holiday fun.

There’s more here than meets the eye. Train rides, hayrides, marshmallow roasts, visits with Santa, a sleigh-bell trot – these diversions augment the spectacular light displays which attract visitors from almost all South Carolina counties, many other states, and even some foreign countries.

“When the Zoo decided to try this out in 1986, it was a novelty for the area,” says Lochlan Wooten, Chief Marketing Officer at Riverbanks Zoo. “The horticulture department took it on with a relatively small staff and started designing animal outlines in the plantings. Here we are in 2019, stringing more than a million lights throughout our park, creating a show that brings huge crowds to the Zoo every year. Average attendance over the five-week period is about 70,000.”

It takes many hard-working hands to put everything in its place. Lochlan says that SCANA, and now Dominion Energy, have provided invaluable assistance with all the planning and installation of this popular exhibit. In recent years, all the planners have emphasized improving the energy consumption; many older lights are replaced every year with energy-efficient LED bulbs. A few treasured displays are hand-made and unique, and difficult to replace, but gradually everything is being converted to a conservation mode. (Incidentally: Riverbanks wants to spread the word that people can bring their discarded holiday lights to the Zoo to be recycled and promises that they won’t wind up in the landfill. Don’t put them in your garbage!)

This year, Andy Godwin, new on the staff as Events Manager, oversees the project. The Santa Parade promises to introduce some new features as well as a bigger train to accommodate the crowds. Other new features can be only hinted at in advance, with mention of archways and walk-through spots which should provide irresistible photo-ops. Designers looking ahead always keep the iconic bridge across the river at the heart of their plans. Don’t be surprised if some multi-media features show up soon: Sounds, smells, movies – Holiday Lights is always evolving.

A special feature of this holiday tradition is that one evening each week is set apart to single out a special group for honor: educators, first responders, military, and others.

Mark Baker, Director of Saluda Shoals Park in Irmo as well as Crooked Creek and Seven Oaks Parks, can spout eye-popping numbers for their Holiday Lights on the River show.

“Five weeks, basically Thanksgiving through New Years,” he says. “23,000 cars, 90,000 people drove through last year. This year we expect the number to surpass 100,000. Even if it rains, which certainly has a dampening effect on attendance.

“This is the fourth year that the entrance to our two-and-a-half-mile drive begins at the St. Andrews Road entrance. This approach has allowed for a stretched-out display, with more room between exhibits, and better traffic control. It eliminates earlier problems with back-up clogging on Old Bush River Road. We start setting up more than a million lights right after Labor Day, adding seven to 10 additional maintenance staff on a seasonal basis, along with the All-Staff Decoration Day when everybody turns out to contribute to the effort. Setting the ground lights is time-consuming. It actually is a year-round process, with planning starting in January as soon as the Holiday Lights come down.

“New this year: a 30-foot Christmas tree topped with a star, at the entrance gate. RGB lights will be dancing to music, and another tree will appear in the Wetland area.”

All of the Saluda Shoals lights are energy-efficient LED, replacing the earlier incandescent bulbs.

You’re familiar with a hayride and a train ride. Then there’s the Winter Wonder Ride. More than 7,400 people last year took the opportunity to experience downhill tubing without the snow. The Sleigh Bell Trot attracts runners and walkers.

Saluda Shoals provides education as well as entertainment. Unique to their display, the students from CATE in Richland-Lexington School District Five participate in design and execution of some displays. Last year they created a Triceratops; this year, it’s a volcano (wait and watch for the eruption!). This is a high-school level course which includes experience in engineering, design, metal welding, and electrical installation.  

The Saluda River provides some of the Midlands’ most significant attractions, with scenic beauty and water sports as well as our urban water supply. Thank you, Riverbanks Zoo and Saluda Shoals Park, for the annual, dazzling adventure!

Riverbanks Zoo & Garden
500 Wildlife Parkway
Columbia SC 29210
Select Nights in November and December (visit Riverbanks.org for a calendar)
5 – 9 p.m.
$12 Adults; $10 Children ages 2-12; Children younger than 2 free.
All Riverbanks members receive one free visit with a valid membership.

Saluda Shoals Park East
6071 St. Andrews Road (between Aldi’s and Wendy’s)
Columbia, SC 29212
Nightly Shows November 27 – December. 31(Drive-Thru every day. No activities Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day)
6 – 10 p.m.
$20/car; $40/ 15-passenger van; $60/bus