‘A Madison, WI Tradition’: Electrical Contractors Put On 31st Annual Holiday Light Show

Holiday lights by Electric Group.

The holidays wouldn’t be quite as magical without decorations and glimmering lights. The Madison, Wis., “Holiday Fantasy in Lights” light show has been making the most wonderful time of year a reality since 1988.

A joint effort between the NECA Wisconsin Chapter and IBEW Local 159—dubbed The Electric Group—the mile-long course of light displays winds through Madison’s Olin Park. It drew more than 100,000 vehicles full of spectators eager to see animals, local mascots, Santa Claus and more designed in lights.

“It’s a big part of the community here,” said Richard Padilla, NECA Wisconsin assistant chapter manager. “We have people who come every year.”

“We take a lot of pride in it,” said Loyal O’Leary, NECA Wiscon-sin chapter manager, who has been helping to put on the light show for 25 years. “It’s a lot of work. We basically start planning for the next year in March.”

The light show was started by local contractors who wanted to give back to the community.

Holiday light arches by Electric Group.

“Back then, 12 contractors built displays of snowmen or Snoopy on top of his house and set it up in Warner Park with the city’s permission,” O’Leary said. “Now, the event has grown to about 55 displays. We typically lease or buy the large displays with animations.”

In 2009, the light show committee decided to stop renting as many displays. Instead, they chose to build displays locally again, said event coordinator Kelly Slack. Slack’s family company, Slack Attack Communications, has been helping put on the light show since day one. The first year, there were about 20 original displays. The number has grown steadily since.

Coordinated through the Labor Management Cooperation Committee (a fund that all union contractors contribute to), the event is truly a community effort. Local sponsors cover the cost and maintenance of displays, electrical contractors and apprentices set up the show, and volunteers staff donation booths. Several IBEW retirees design the displays and weld and string lights.

“It’s a joy to work on this project,” Slack said. “It’s fun to dream up display ideas and get creative.”

This year, Slack settled on a display of flamingos kicking a soccer ball, inspired by Madison’s professional soccer team, the Flamingos.

An annual display featuring one elf proposing to another is even the backdrop for an engagement or two, Padilla said.

“Goodman Jewelers, a local jewelry store, sponsored the dis-play, and we hear stories where people propose in front of it every year,” Slack said. Slack helps make the engagements happen behind the scenes, ordering banners and organizing the unfurl-ing on certain nights.

In recent years, the light show has even become a green endeavor. In 2009, IBEW and NECA converted more than 15,000 incandescent light bulbs to LEDs, resulting in an 82% energy reduction and less maintenance, according to the Fantasy in Lights website.

Holiday snowman light display by Electric Group.

“We got the electric bill from the city and it dropped down from about $20,000 to $2,000,” O’Leary said.

Another advantage of using LEDs?

“We don’t have to change them out as often,” O’Leary said. “We have the displays set on timers. But for the incandescent bulbs, we had to keep them on 24 hours a day.”

The LEDs are only turned on for a third as much time.

While the event is free, the Electric Group sets up donation booths at the end of the light show and donates the proceeds back to community. The holiday spirit encourages donations and, last year, Fantasy in Lights raised over $100,000.

This year, Fantasy in Lights will be spreading holiday magic through Jan. 4, 2020. A livestream of the course is also available on the event website.

About the Author

Marlena Chertock

Freelance Writer

Marlena Chertock is a former editorial intern at Electrical Contractor magazine who now writes for the magazine as a freelance journalist. Her articles have appeared in The Washington Post, Marketplace, NBC News, News21, WTOP and The Gazette. Contact...

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