Fresh off an appearance on a national TV show, these Alaqua Lakes residents share the secrets behind their unbelievable holiday lights display
If you’re a fan of amazing, over-the-top Christmas light displays, and you watched ABC’s The Great Christmas Light Fight TV show this past December, you may have noticed two of our very own Longwood neighbors featured in the season’s last episode.
“We like to say they saved the best for last,” laughs Jim Cheslin, one of the homeowners and the mastermind behind a light display that defies belief. “We were featured in the last segment of the very last show.”
For more than a decade, Jim and his partner Alex Laneaux have decked out their house in Alaqua Lakes with Christmas lights. The all-LED display includes nearly 100,000 lights, powered by 500 extension cords totaling 3.5 miles. The house lights are held in place with screens plus about 7,000 zip ties. The display covers about 98 percent of the house and the front yard and is synchronized to music – 25 different songs, in fact. The result is an astounding, 75-minute audiovisual show that runs nightly from Thanksgiving weekend until January 2. There are small speakers at the front door, and the music is broadcast via an unused FM radio frequency that reaches about 300 feet.
The inspiration for the display came from a visit to the sadly-now-defunct Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights display at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. Jim was amazed by the technology used to synchronize the lights with music. He had to give it a try.
“I just started this for fun,” Jim says. “I had no idea it would get this big.”
He uses his tech background to program the synchronized light show, spending five to seven hours to create each musical minute.
“That’s why every song is three minutes or less,” explains Jim, “because it takes 20-25 hours to program a three-minute song.”
He has about 55 songs in inventory, beginning the programming process some 10 months ahead of the season.
The light-show design has remained similar since its inception, but Jim is always adding, fixing, and tweaking. Alex is soft-spoken and, while supportive, admits that this was all Jim’s wild idea. But in 2016, Alex put his own very special stamp on the display, adding 49 handcrafted lighted stars to remember the victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting in downtown Orlando.
For several years Jim had posted YouTube videos of the house. Last year, just as Alex had convinced Jim to “maybe, perhaps, take a year off,” Jim received an email with the subject line Great Christmas Light Fight. A casting producer had seen his YouTube videos and encouraged him to apply for the show. Once Jim saw the show on ABC, he said, “These people are over the top! I didn’t think I was in that caliber,” he laughs. “All I did was put lights on the house.”
Following a summertime Skype interview for which the pair hastily decorated their house in Christmas trimmings for the background, they were given suggestions on how to improve the display: Add lights on a previously dark portion of the roof, add more decorations in the front yard, and jazz up the garage doors. Jim added nearly 10,000 lights to the roof, terming it the Chris Tilley roof section, named for the segment producer who made the suggestion and whom Alex claims “is now Jim’s best friend.”
Alex suggested using Mylar to decorate the garage. When the producer saw the new video in which Jim debuted the Chris Tilley roof section, it was a hit, and the scheduling began.
Typically Jim begins setting up the display over the Labor Day holiday, working weekends to have it ready for Thanksgiving. This year, however, they were told that the film crew would arrive during the first week of October. So Jim enlisted help, flying in a college friend from Hawaii to help assemble the display. It took them more than two weeks, sometimes working 10-hour days.
“The roof took 10 days,” says Jim. “The Chris Tilley roof section took three days in itself.”
Alex pitched in, and the three were about 90 percent done when the film crew arrived.
“We left one palm tree, we saved one section on the roof, and we saved the garage for the show,” says Jim. They intended to put a lighted Merry Christmas sign on the roof, but as Alex says, “All you could see was ‘Merr-mas,’” so they moved it to the garage door.
A crew of about 10 people arrived to film from October 2-5 – four long, but exciting days in which Jim and Alex were filmed finishing up the light display and revealing the final product. Jim and Alex included their cats in the show, to provide comic relief.
“The opening segment alone took two hours to film,” recalls Jim, “I mean, we have four cats, and they had ornaments on their heads...” And one of the cats was hiding under the bed, adds Alex.
The two enjoyed filming the show, interacting with the host (Taniya Nayak) and enlisting the help of one cat (whom they nicknamed Santa Paws), neighbors, and friends to celebrate the big reveal.
“Taniya was a doll to work with,” says Alex.
“She signed autographs and took pictures with everyone,” adds Jim.
When their episode of the show aired, Alex and Jim hosted a watch party at the house, and even though they didn’t win the coveted GCLF trophy, a friend gave them their own trophy to thank them for their hard work.
“The neighbors love the display,” says Jim. “Nobody complains. We’ve had maybe one sourpuss.”
In fact, the outpouring of support is immense. “When we’re setting up, people will ride or drive by and yell, ‘Thank you!’ or shout out a ‘Ho! Ho! Ho!’” Jim says, “and when we take it down, they’re sad to see it go.”
Visiting the house has become a local tradition. Families visit every Thanksgiving or every Christmas Eve, says Jim.
“We received a thank-you card from a family saying how they come to see our lights every year,” Jim says. “There are kids now that are 18 or 19 and they’re in college, but they still come back to see the lights. That blew me away.”
“When it’s all said and done, and we’re watching the kids dancing in the driveway when the lights come on, that’s what does it for me,” says Alex. “That driveway is just packed with kids, dancing in their pajamas!”
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