It was in autumn 1992 that Callaway Gardens, at the behest of co-founder Virginia Hand Callaway, realized her sentimental wish of launching a colorful holiday light show to dazzle those visiting the tourist attraction in Pine Mountain, Ga.
That first year, there were a mere 1.8 million lights and just five major displays at Fantasy in Lights, those being the March of the Toy Soldiers, Magical Christmas Garden, Snowflake Valley, Twin Trees and FIL the Frog along a five-mile stretch of the resort’s roadway. They were designed and custom-made by two former Disney employees, one a graphic artist, the other an entertainment executive.
Though Virginia, the wife of Cason Callaway, would pass away in February 1995, only three years after the lighted attraction’s debut, Fantasy in Lights quickly took off, far exceeding the initial humble estimate of 60,000 visitors per year. Instead, the show attracted 250,000 people annually within its first few seasons.
“Fantasy in Lights is the single most-popular event that we do, and our intent is to build on its success,” Cason and Virginia’s son, the late Howard H. “Bo” Callaway Jr., president and chief executive officer of the resort at the time, told the Ledger-Enquirer in 1997. “We consider this show to be the premiere light show in the country and want to maintain that status.”
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Fast forward more than a quarter of a century. Today, Fantasy in Lights encompasses 15 displays with more than 8 million lights spread throughout the forested landscape. It takes more than 32 miles of cable to power the sound and lights. Complementing the gee-whiz technology is the traditional Christmas Village that includes indoor shopping, food and good ol’ Santa Claus himself.
National Geographic has even rated Fantasy in Lights one of the Top 10 light displays in the world, with the only other U.S. destination on the 2011 list in St. Augustine, Fla. Other cities on the list included Vienna, Austria; Brussels; Gothenburg, Sweden; Hong Kong; and Madrid.
“Create a season that’s magical with a getaway to remember,” is how Callaway Gardens refers to the holiday experience on its website, also calling it “The South’s Christmas Tradition.”
Fantasy in Lights kicks off Nov. 16 and runs through Jan. 5, with Callaway Gardens advising guests to use the Robin Lake Beach entrance on U.S. 27 to enter the resort. Once inside, light-show revelers can either drive their own vehicles through the attraction or park and take a complementary open-air “Jolly Trolley,” which allows guests to better hear the holiday music playing at the displays.
Although Callaway Gardens is open from 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m. through the holiday season, the Fantasy in Lights show itself begins at 6 p.m. each day, while the Christmas Village, adjacent to Robin Lake Beach, opens at 4 p.m. It takes about an hour to see the lights, with vehicles and the trolley crawling along at times as people enjoy the 15 light displays, often taking photographs.
The gardens recommends that those making the drive from Columbus and Atlanta or elsewhere to purchase Fantasy in Lights tickets in advance. Pricing depends on the day of the week preferred for viewing the show, with tickets sold on a first come, first served basis. The weekends, obviously, will be a more popular time, as will days connected to Thanksgiving and Christmas, thus plan and purchase ahead of time.
“Super prime” ticket times — which are Nov. 23, Dec. 1, Dec. 8, Dec. 15, Dec. 21-22, and Dec. 26 — cost $30 per adult and $15 for children ages 6-12.
“Prime” tickets are Nov. 17-18, Nov. 21-22, Nov. 24-25, Nov. 30, Dec. 2, Dec. 7, Dec. 9, Dec. 14, Dec. 16, Dec. 23-25, and Dec. 27-30. The cost is $28 for adults and $14 for children.
“Value” tickets, primarily weekdays, are $21 for adults and $10.50 for children. Those days are Nov. 16, Nov. 19-20, Nov. 26-29, Dec. 3-6, Dec. 10-3, Dec. 17-20 and Jan. 1-5.
There also is a “Fantasy & Fireworks” event scheduled for New Year’s Eve on Dec. 31. Tickets are $28 for adults and $14 for children.
Those who don’t purchase tickets ahead of time, opting for the day of the show, can expect to pay more. Tickets are $35 per adult and $17.50 for children, and must be bought at the will call center near the beach pavilion.
To purchase tickets, visit the Fantasy in Lights ticketing page online or call 1-855-421-4176.
Note that Fantasy in Lights will take place even if its rainy and very cold, so prepare accordingly and bundle up if the trolley ride is more your style. Callaway Gardens also has lodging available with various packages that include tickets.
The sights and sounds
Here’s a list of the scenes at this year’s Fantasy in Lights show:
▪ Christmas Tree Lane
▪ March of the Toy Soldiers
▪ Snow Day
▪ Enchanted Rainbow Forest
▪ FIL the Frog
▪ Firefly Cove
▪ Santa’s Workshop
▪ Twin Trees
▪ The 12 Days of Christmas
▪ Snowflake Valley
▪ Magical Christmas Garden
▪ Swan Lake and Hummingbird Fountain
▪ Skating Party
▪ The Nativity (show every 10 minutes at Robin Lake Beach)
▪ ’Twas the Night Before Christmas (show every 10 minutes at Robin Lake Beach)