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Willard • Sonny Gilbert once watched a distraught father tell a child who wanted to take a horse-drawn wagon ride that he could not afford the extra $3-per-person charge.
That's all anyone needs to know about Sonny and his wife, LeAnn, and why they don't charge extra to visitors enjoying their Fantasy at the Bay animated Christmas show at Willard Bay State Park.
Sonny, a former auto body repairman turned animated steel bender, decided that families paying $8 a carload to see his lighted animated creations should be able to take the wagon ride. So he pays the horse-drawn wagon owner a set fee so everyone can enjoy the ride (except on Sundays when the light show is open but the horses take a rest).
The Gilberts, of Brigham City, opened the holiday show at Willard Bay in 2003. They subsequently created the Zoo Lights decorations that are now a holiday treat at Hogle Zoo as well.
"I love Christmas," said LeAnn. "I don't know what the deal is, but us older folks appreciate Christmas more than the younger ones. I grew up with anticipation and excitement and knew we were not getting anything we wanted. Seniors love the park."
While spending more than 30 years repairing auto bodies, Sonny always dreamed of being his own boss.
His first effort involved creating large wrought-iron birdcages. Then he made wishing wells, windmills, flower carts, pioneer handcart planters, arbors, gazebos and other decorated lawn ornaments. That was eventually expanded to include Halloween characters, wedding decorations and Christmas creations, which he eventually started lighting.
During this time, LeAnn worked as a third-grade teacher. When the couple took a Christmas trip to Branson, Mo., about 10 years ago, they found a drive-thru Christmas-light park and decided to do something similar in Utah. That involved mortgaging their home and building a shop in the backyard.
At first, many of the couple's holiday creations came from picture books. They included animals, Santa, a Nativity, iconic Utah scenes and characters and Christmas scenes that use computerized boxes to provide moving lighted characters. They eventually hired artist Kurt Moulton, who comes up with drawings after consulting with the couple. Sonny then fabricates the steel and uses rope lights to bring Moulton's drawings to life.
The effort isn't inexpensive. A roll of regular rope lights costs $70. The LED lights the zoo requires go for $600. Then there are the steel and the boxes that control the lighting as well as a substantial power bill.
Yet, it has been successful. Fantasy at the Bay draws an estimated 10,000 cars and 40,000 people to Willard Bay's north campgrounds for a monthlong run. Zoo Lights draws hundreds more.
"The zoo is unique," said Sonny. "There is the stuff they have with the animals and so many trees and railings that must be lit. And we animated the 12 days of Christmas."
Those who worked with the couple seem to love them.
"He is a rare talent as a retired body shop owner to make this happen," said Hogle Zoo marketing director Brad Parkin. "Other zoos don't have that advantage. He was able to create our vision of what we wanted our event to be. We would give him an idea for a display, he would have his graphic artist draw it and then he would implement it. It was a true partnership in every sense of the word."
Willard Bay park manager Wayne Monroe said Fantasy at the Bay brings people into Box Elder County during the often slow winter season, introducing them to an area they might return to in the summer.
It is easy for a family to spend 45 minutes to an hour at Willard Bay seeing the numerous displays that include dinosaurs, the Jazz Bear, mountain men, elves, the Grinch and Santa's toy shop. The biggest satisfaction Sonny gets is standing around the campfire listening to people talk about his work.
LeAnn loves telling the story of a skeptical customer who asked if he could get his money back if he wasn't satisfied. She joked that she would be glad to do that, but the man would have to give her an extra dollar if he liked it. He stopped and handed her the dollar on the way out.
Where to find holiday light displays
Fantasy at the Bay • This event at the north marina at Willard Bay State Park features moving light shows of animated characters, free horse-drawn wagon rides (except on Sundays), Santa, concession stand and a bonfire for those who want to make s'mores. Cost is $8 a carload. Event runs through New Year's Eve, 5:30-10 p.m. seven days a week.
Zoo Lights • This Hogle Zoo event features a reindeer parade each evening at 5:15, more than 250 animated light displays and Santa. The event opened Friday and runs nightly through Dec. 31, except on Christmas. Hours are 5-8 p.m. Sunday through Thursday (grounds close at 9 p.m.), and 5 to 9 p.m. on Friday and Saturday (grounds close at 10 p.m.). Admission is $6 for adults, $4 for children 3-12 and seniors 65 and over, with toddlers 2 and younger free.
Spanish Fork Festival of Lights • This event, now in its 18th year, is held at Canyon View Park at 3300 E. Powerhouse Road through New Year's Day. Cost is $5 per carload or $25 per large bus. New for 2008 is the Candy Cane Factory that is 35 feet long and 12 feet tall. The display is known for cowboy-themed holiday attractions.
Thanksgiving Point Holiday Lights • Thanksgiving Point's Electric Park drive-thru displays are open Monday through Saturday from 6 to 10 p.m. and feature 1 million sparkling lights set to holiday music and a reading of the Christmas story. Entry is $8 per car. Guests can also see the lights on the trolley for $2 per person, by horse-drawn wagon for $3 per person or carriage. Special 3-D glasses are available for purchase, adding a new element to the feature.