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Christmas lights: A visit with ‘Saint Nick’

Sitting at the gateway of the Great Smoky Mountains, Pigeon Forge, Tenn., has evolved into a miniature Las Vegas of the south during the holiday season.

Local businesses pack the roadside along Highway 441, or as the locals call it, the Parkway, competing for the attention of tourists. Much like the water and light displays casinos build on the strip, Pigeon Forge builds their own light displays filled with twinkling snowflakes and trees amass a sea of hotels, restaurants, miniature golf courses and dinner theaters.

The city began developing these displays in 1994 as an effort to extend the tourist season beyond October into the winter months.


“A Christmas Fantasy” at the Resort at Governor’s Crossing

Meanwhile at Belmont, senior Entrepreneurship and Accounting double major Nick Miller is putting the finishing touches on four displays for his home town of Pigeon Forge where his family owns several lodging facilities.

The first and most intricate of these displays, at the Resort at Governor’s Crossing is called “A Christmas Fantasy.” It includes 16 six-foot trees, one 20-foot tree and three angels that soar 25 feet in the air– not to mention a stable that houses Santa and Rudolph and a 14 piece nativity.

“It also has remote input triggers so that guests can press a button to interact with the display,” Miller said.

The display at Creekstone, “Winter Wonderland”, makes use of 28 three-foot tall snowflakes which were made in-house, contains more than 2,000 feet of rope light.

“I was inspired by Saks 5th Avenue, and I knew I had a facade available,” Miller said.

The other two displays at Ramada and All-Season suites feature a quartet of singing Christmas trees, and a spaceship Santa that drops gifts to the elves below.


Spaceship Santa

After seeing a display on television, Miller decided that he wanted to create a display of his own– the first being at his home and included the mega tree and seven smaller trees.

“Before that, we always put up Christmas lights at our home,” Miller said. “By that point we still had more than 100,000 lights out, so it didn’t really increase the size.”

Much to his mother’s chagrin, Miller’s home display became a tourist attraction in itself.

“It went from my house to the resort because my mother did not like cars in our driveway,” Miller said.

After making the move to the lodging facilities, Miller realized that more planning was needed to execute the displays.

“We start in December with the next year’s display so we can get a lot of the stuff from the current Christmas season so that we have it to work with throughout the year,” Miller said. “Generally by January we have a pretty good idea of what we’re doing and we order a lot more of our computer equipment during the summer so that in August, maintenance will start putting out the first rounds of stuff.”

“A great deal of it is done in the summer, and there are action plans so when I leave, so employees know where to put stuff and how to put stuff out, and I do the computer programming just in my free time,” Miller said.

The computer program Miller uses helps facilitate the execution of the displays without Miller having to actually be in Pigeon Forge during the entirety of the holiday season.

“It has the capabilities to do about everything, it has a beat wizard that can actually detect the beat of a song, and program the lights for you, they just don’t generally look as coordinated,” Miller said. “It manages everything from what time the show comes on, when it runs, and the show doesn’t require any effort from me once it’s out there.”

With all of the capabilities of the program, this step can also be the most difficult part of the designing process.

“It takes between one to three hours to program one song. You’re programming to a tenth to a twentieth of a second, depending on how fast the beat is,” Miller said.

In an effort to be more cost effective, Miller even peruses the Wal-Mart in Hilton Head, South Carolina, during his family’s post-Christmas vacation where, due to local ordinances, residents aren’t allowed the merry privilege of decorating to the extent that Pigeon Forge does.

“Last year, I had a receipt as tall as my mom,” Miller said.

Miller also employs the help of fellow friends at Belmont, including senior Music Business and Entrepreneurship double major Michael Hammers.

“He creates the soundtrack based off of what I want for my Christmas, and then masters it into one master track after the recording,” Miller said. “He also contributes to the voice of Rudolph, but whenever there’s characters and stuff he helps get all of the leg work done on that part.”

While Miller develops the ideas for the displays, his ideas would fall short without the expertise and eagerness of Hammers.

“Depending on which songs are chosen, some of them have to be changed a little bit so that they fit the mix better, you have different songs from different albums, different artists will have different sonic qualities so you have to mash them together so they don’t sound like a random assortment of ratchet sounds, more like a unified thing,” Hammers said.


Hammers helps Miller perfect the audio synchronization with the light display

Hammers was eager to help with the audio mixing, but was also apprehensive about being the voice of Rudolph.

“I was initially opposed to the idea, because I am not Rudolph. I am Michael. I am very ridiculous, yes, but I just didn’t feel like a little child-like thing called Rudolph with antlers,” Hammers said. “So it was a little weird, but I put on my best ridiculous voice and went back and made it sound a little more ridiculous and it turned out alright.”

 The displays have taken a few years to develop, but Miller already has his eyes set on new projects where guests of his family’s lodging facilities would be able to interact with the displays for years to come.

“I really want to do ‘How the Grinch Stole Christmas’ which would require adding the capabilities of a projection screen and video imagery,” Miller said.

He also hopes to create a walking display called the “Jingle Jungle Safari” which would employ the use of pressure pads and sensors– much like giant pianos where guests would step into an area of the display to enable light and sound.

Overall, being able to create Christmas light displays for Pigeon Forge is an enjoyable experience for Miller.

“It’s a lot of fun to be in the parking lot and see families stopping to watch the lights. At any given time you can turn around and see little kids with their faces pressed against the windows of their room or out on their balcony. Seeing all of the Christmas joy that it brings is what make it worth it,”  Miller said.

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Nov 16, 2023

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