Daytrippin' -- Pilot Mountain Christmas
Christmas and lights go together like cookies and milk for Santa, and Larry and Rachel Charpiat have trimmed 2 acres of their Pilot Mountain homeplace with more than 300,000 electric lights. They want nothing more than to share their Pilot Mountain Christmas Extravaganza with your family.
Larry began the display, now in its 45th year, in Hollywood, Fla., in 1966 with a few lighted Christmas decorations. He has added pieces each year since. When he and his wife, Rachel, retired and moved to Rachel's old homeplace in Pilot Mountain in 2004, their family tradition moved with them. Christmas 2011 marks the seventh year that they Charpiats have displayed the light show in North Carolina. They have been working since last Christmas to add more displays, including some retired from Tanglewood's Festival of Lights in Clemmons.
A Pilot Mountain Christmas Extravaganza opened Thanksgiving Day, and the Charpiats' extended families traveled to the couple's home on N.C. Highway 268. Instead of enjoying the traditional Thanksgiving meal together, they helped Larry and Rachel kick off the show and saved the big dinner for the next day. With the flip of electrical breakers, the lights, music and animated characters came to life and will do so each night until after New Year's Day. "It still gives me chills when we turn it on ... the disbelief in people's eyes when they first see it," says Rachel.
The Charpiats' light display includes most every kind of outdoor Christmas decoration you've ever seen. And the sheer number and variety of these light forms, animated characters and inflatables make Pilot Mountain Christmas Extravaganza a real joy for kids. There's even free hot chocolate and visits from Santa every Friday and Saturday night.
"We have our own expanded lighted parking lot where our visitors park and walk through the display on lighted paths," Larry says. Eighty-five cars can now park in the lot. The Charpiats don't charge admission, but will accept donations to help pay the nearly $2,000 electric bill.
From the parking lot, the walking tour begins at a small building where hot chocolate is served. A golf cart is available for visitors who have trouble walking. From there, signs lead to the displays, beginning with an old corn crib transformed into "Santa's Workshop." Here an animated Santa recounts the Christmas story. Next door, the "Small World" Christmas display of "snow babies" is a nod to Disney World, where Rachel worked while living in Florida. Disney characters can be seen throughout the grounds, including the animated Mickey's Playhouse.
A lighted archway leads to Santa's enchanted forest, where familiar Christmas sights of twinkling trees, decorated deer and snow-covered Canada geese are right at home in this mountain woodland. But the palm trees, jumping dolphins and alligator may have you wondering if you have made a wrong turn. Just remember where this Christmas Extravaganza began.
A life-size Nativity scene rests in front of an old barn surrounded by lighted messages that read "Jesus is the reason for the season" and "A child is born." Rachel says this area is the main part of their display. "We want to remind people that this is why we celebrate Christmas," she said.
Along with the glow of 300,000 lights, the sounds of simultaneous musical performances fill the air. The 6,400 lights of the Christmas tree in front of the house are synchronized to a playlist of Christmas carols. In another area, a singing Christmas tree improvises the words to familiar Christmas tunes, and a mounted deer head sings country songs with the voice of Bill Engvall. And then there is a multitalented singing, dancing Snowman, of course.
"A lot of people say that they just enjoy the opportunity to take their time and walk through the displays," Rachel said. "You can walk through in 10 minutes, or you can stay for a couple of hours." And that is just what the Charpiats intend, to share their Christmas spirit with your family. If take them up on this invitation, you'll be in good company. They estimate that 12,000 people viewed the display last year. "That is more than double the visitors we had the year before," Rachel says. They hope to see you there.
Jan Wharton is a freelance writer and lives in Winston-Salem.
If You Go
Pilot Mountain Christmas Extravaganza
4236 N.C. 268 Highway East, Pilot Mountain
(2 miles east of Old Highway 52)
Open 6-10 p.m. each nightly, Nov. 24-Jan.1.
Admission is free, but donations are accepted.