Best Christmas lights display in Naples could be in this neighborhood, a holiday tradition
In Victoria Park, Santa Claus dances the hula. Rudolph manifests as an AT-AT Walker from Star Wars. There’s even a dragon in there, somewhere.
When Brooke Austin moved into her house on Winchester Wood in Naples’ Victoria Park, she found a snowflake in the garage.
Specifically, it was a snowflake decoration because she lives on the snowflake street. And every year, she and just about every neighbor place their snowflake at the end of their driveways, where they shine for the innumerable cars full of twinkling eyes, peering out at the holiday lights that twinkle back.
And while Winchester Wood is the snowflake street, Huntington Drive is the candle street. Other streets feature Santa’s head, stars, and arches over the street itself.
“If you don’t put your decoration out, people kind of think you’re a scrooge,” said Austin, who is on the community’s board of directors.
With an annual tradition so prolific, it’s clear that the neighborhood’s “scrooges” are few and far between: An unadorned home is the exception, not the rule.
There are also those who say they know how it all got started — including the daughter of the man himself.
“I believe it was the year that 'Christmas Vacation' came out,” said Laura Gale, former Victoria Park resident, referring to "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation" that hit theaters in 1989. “That’s where my dad got the idea.”
If you ask around, there’s generally two ideas of how the annual, all-out decoration affair got its start. In fact, the Daily News itself has reported on each of them as a potential start. In 2016, a story noted it began in 1992 as a fundraiser for a girl with cancer.
Another story, from 2012, points to a start in the early '80s with the tradition of putting out luminaries on Christmas Eve (which is something that still happens every year). That’s closer to the truth, but not quite it, according to Gale.
Gale’s late father, Ronald Heineck, decided to follow the Christmas Vacation example and pulled a total Clark Griswold after the comedy hit the big screen 31 years ago. Gale, now 46, said she was a teenager at the time, and theirs was about the only house in the neighborhood decorated.
Heineck lined their driveway with lights, and they made cutouts of Santa’s sleigh and his deer for the roof out of plywood, which Gale herself painted.
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“I wanted to leave the house. I was so embarrassed,” she said. “Long story short, it caught on.”
In 2014, under the name Laura McPherson, Gale penned a letter to the editor, which pointed out the tradition started with her dad. Since he died in early December, Gale felt a renewed surge to correct the narrative to honor her dad. She admits the evolution came largely from the interest of her neighbors, but she does want to point out that her dad was the first to deck the walls, so to speak.
“He was just a holiday Griswold,” Gale said, referring to the movie's main character, played by Chevy Chase. “I think he took that movie and molded it into his brain and became it.”
To her, the holiday season is all about family, adding: “It’s important. It’s love. It’s unity. It’s togetherness."
And, given the pandemic, Victoria Park’s displays make it a prime spot for low-risk sightseeing, since most folks enjoy the views from the comfort of their cars.
“I noticed this year people put their lights up early,” Austin said. “We’ve actually gotten busier earlier this year. I think because of COVID, there’s not a whole lot to do. They figure, well, let’s go around and look at lights.”
Even though the decorations mean more traffic, Austin said she and her family embrace it.
“Many nights, we’ll sit out on our front porch and just watch people drive by and wave,” she said. “It brings us joy seeing other people experience joy looking at the lights."
Though Gale has since moved away, she still knows what kind of community Victoria Park is during the holiday season.
“It’s the neighborhood everybody goes to,” she said.
Andrew Atkins is a Naples Daily News features reporter. Contact him via email at email@example.com. To support work like Andrew's, please consider subscribing: https://cm.naplesnews.com/specialoffer/