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Holiday lights glitter around region

| Thursday, Nov. 27, 2003

Santa Claus leads a merry band of elves across the Hartwood Acres landscape on motorcycles.

In Westmoreland County Fairgrounds, 45 horses prepare to dance around a carousel.

In nearby Wheeling, W.Va., a fire-breathing dragon dares the snow to fall.

The celebratory switch has been turned on throughout the Valley, western Pennsylvania and the tri-state area, heralding another season of holiday light displays.

Among the leading destinations:

  • The Eckerd Celebration of Lights at Hartwood Acres in Indiana and Hampton townships.

  • Overly's Country Christmas at Westmoreland County Fairgrounds, near Greensburg.

  • Oglebay Park Winter Festival of Lights, Wheeling, W.Va.

    If you have time to spend, you cannot spend it any better that by visiting Hartwood, says Michael Steinmetz, operations director of the 12th annual Eckerd display.

    "This show gives you a warm, Christmasy-holiday feeling while driving through it, no matter how your day has gone," he says.

    There are few better excuses for getting the family together than for a drive-through tour, he suggests.

    "A lot of people tell us it's absolutely a family tradition, something they do year after year," he says. "They take a day, get together as a family and drive through. I think that's pretty wonderful. It's hard to get everybody together today, but many families make a point to go through this together."

    Steinmetz tries to give the attraction a new look each year.

    A good light show has to have a flow to it, he says, something to hold your attention from start to finish.

    Santa on a Harley, a new display this year, was his idea, and it is a reflection of his and his wife's passion for riding motorcycles.

    Beyond its entertainment value, the Celebration of Lights provides the serious business of raising money for local charities. "There are a lot of charities out there. This is local, and the money stays local and helps all the people of the surrounding areas," he says.

    Proceeds benefit organizations such as The Salvation Army's Project Bundle Up, which provides winter clothing for the needy; St. Joseph House of Hospitality and the Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh.

    The lights continue to amaze visitors, but it's still the Christmas Village that provides the memories, says Stephanie Tomasic, executive director of Overly's Country Christmas.

    "And our gigantic bonfire, around which guests gather listening to carols and sipping hot chocolate, is the heart of Overly's and is where many memories and traditions are born or continue," she adds

    Overly's provides a drive-through and stop and walk-through experience.

    The village includes Hartman Station, where train buffs will find an expanded G-scale model train display, as well as a collection of railroad memorabilia.

    "Many times I see grown men enter the doors, and I hear them saying, lovingly, 'If only my father were alive to see this,' " she says. She says men reminisce about their youth, when their fathers built a small village beneath the lights of the family Christmas tree.

    There is a life-sized manger with live animals. Children can ride the Kids' Express train ride and visit Santa's Workshop.

    There are sleigh rides, a gift and candy shop, old-fashioned country store and more.

    Overly's has begun work on new lighting techniques and adding visual enhancements to the village. Several prototype displays are being tested for possible addition in 2004. These displays are designed to be functional artwork when not lit.

    The carousel, created in 1989, probably is the favorite light display at Overly's, according to Tomasic. The manger, fountains and entrance canopy are in the top 5, she adds. There's even a "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" in lights.

    "The most nostalgic is the wagon with the wheels that turn, the horse that gallops and the whip that whips. It was the first animated piece that Harry Overly created," she says.

    This is the 47th year for the lights. It benefits Overly's Lights for Little Ones Endowment, which supports multiple children's causes.

    Six displays have been added to Oglebay's Winter Festival of Lights, which bills itself as the nation's largest.

    Into its 19th year, it covers 300 acres on a six-mile drive with more than 60 larger-than-life displays, plus landscape lighting on the trees and hills.

    "Oglebay's hilly terrain and many trees make the show unique, and the historic buildings that are lit and decorated also make our show different from many other lights' attractions," says Caren Knoyer, Oglebay's marketing director.

    The fire-breathing dragon at the park's Good Zoo honors an exhibit at the zoo of a live Komodo dragon.

    Other new displays include the Nutcrackers and Growing Poinsettias at Wilson Lodge, a snowman family near the Par 3 golf course, Snoopy tipping his hat on the road to the zoo, prior to entering the Light Tunnel, and the Christmas tree garden near the visitor center.

    There are trolley tours, a laser-light display at the zoo and a model train exhibit.

    "The show is very appealing to families, because there is something for everyone," she says. "Some of the people that enjoyed the show as a child with their parents are now bringing their own children. Many grandparents also like to bring their grandchildren."

    Additional Information:

    If you go

    Eckerd Celebration of Lights

    When: Daily, including holidays, through Jan. 11; 6 to 10 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays; 6 to 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Christmas and New Year's Eve hours: 6 to 10 p.m.

    Where: Hartwood Acres, Indiana and Hampton townships.

    Cost: Suggested donation $10 per car; $3 per person per bus or RV.

    How to get there: From Harmarville exit of Allegheny Valley Expressway (Route 28), make a right onto Route 910 West; left onto Saxonburg Boulevard for about 2 1/2 miles. The mansion entrance, which is the start of the drive-through light tour, is on the right.

    Details: 1-877-548-3874.

    Overly's Country Christmas

    When: Daily through Jan. 4, including holidays.

    Where: Westmoreland Fairgrounds, Mount Pleasant Road, near Greensburg.

    Cost: $8 per car or family van; $10 per limousine, extended-passenger van or minibus.

    How to get there: Take the University of Pittsburgh/Westmoreland Fairgrounds exit off Route 30 East.

    Details: 1-800-968-3759, 724-423-1400 or www.overlys.com

    Winter Festival of Lights

    When: Daily, through Jan. 4; 5:30 to 11 p.m.

    Where: Oglebay Park, Wheeling, W.Va.

    Cost: $8 per car donation requested.

    How to get there: Off exit 2A of Interstate 70 West, and follow the signs for four miles to the park. It is 60 miles from Pittsburgh via Interstate 79 South and I-70 West.

    Details: 1-800-624-6988 or www.oglebay-resort.com

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