20 Secrets Behind Unbelievable Christmas Lights Displays

Learn the lengths some will go to turn their yards into holiday wonderlands.

ByABC News
December 21, 2011, 1:34 PM

Dec. 21, 2011 — -- intro: They might be in your neighborhood, or in the town next door: Grand, elaborate Christmas displays that light up the block for the holiday season, sometimes drawing thousands of onlookers. Some of this year's most ornate displays include Fred Loya's home in El Paso, Texas, the "Dyker Lights" display in New York, Mike Cole's home in Cour D'Alene, Idaho and displays by neighbors Jeff Norford and Bobby Morris in Charlottesville, Va.

If you hope to join their ranks, it's not too early to start planning for next Christmas. Check out tips below, including advice from Loya, Cole and more.

quicklist: 1title: Start Earlytext: It's best to get a jump on the season, and don't even think about starting after Thanksgiving if you want the best house on your block. Sam Bilas has one of the most impressive and ostentatious Christmas displays in all of Brooklyn, and he starts decorating in September. But Fred Loya starts even earlier – in the dog days of summer. "We start planning for it in July," Loya said. "Right around the beginning of July we plan the music. And then we start putting up the lights in August. October and November then is dedicated to the computer programming."

quicklist: 2title: Start Smalltext: Don't bite off more than you can chew on your first attempt at an amazing Christmas light show. "Start with a few lights and see if they like it," Fred Loya recommended. "And see if it brings a sense of satisfaction to people that come by and see it, and then just go from there. Then just keep adding strings."

quicklist: 3title: Anticipate the Attentiontext: Christmas lights bus tours are becoming more common. Every December, more than 100,000 people come to see the over-the-top displays of "Dyker Lights," in the Brooklyn neighborhood of that name. At least three different tour companies bring hoards of people through the neighborhood every night.

quicklist: 4title: Get Inspiredtext: The people with the craziest Christmas light decorations often have a story or tradition behind their lighting displays. Lucy Spata, who started the Dyker Lights phenomenon, came from a family of decorators and wanted to keep the tradition alive for her children to follow. She decorates in honor of her mother. "That's all she lived for was decorating her house for Christmas," she said. If you are really hard core, think about attending the annual Christmas Expo in July, where decorating professionals and companies gather to show off the latest trends in Christmas decorating. You can even take classes in animatronics and "megatrees."

quicklist: 5title: Bring in Professionals... text: Putting up a spectacular Christmas display isn't easy. Fred Loya contracted his maintenance chief to produce his amazing Christmas lights show, and the man spent the entire year searching for the best people who could help put on the most spectacular show possible. He also brings in electricians, and sound technicians, hires off duty cops to control the crowds, and flew in a computer programmer from California for his Christmas spectacular.

quicklist: 6title: ...Or, Learn by Doingtext: Mike Cole, who puts on an amazing Christmas light display in Coeur D'Alene, Idaho, says he just started fiddling around one year and his show has grown more and more sophisticated each season. He purchases a program from a company called Light-O-Rama to control the lights. "It's software that you program to tell the controllers in the yard what to do, as in on, off, fade up, fade down, shimmer, and twinkle," he said. "I now have 25 controllers. So with 400 channels to manage, most of the time it takes to do these shows is in the programming in the off season. It takes 8 to 10 hours to program one minute of music."

quicklist: 7title: Get Ready for Resistancetext: One of the biggest issues with putting up flashy holiday decorations is that it can bring out the Grinches in your neighbors. And sometimes rightfully so -- not everyone likes the increased traffic and noise that your house will bring to the neighborhood. So be ready to make concessions. Fred Loya has restricted his light show to only three times a night on weekends, rents port-a-potties and hires a clean-up crew to pick up trash after the show. Lucy Spata, who started the Dyker Lights phenomenon, wasn't so accommodating. "Move," she said. "Go on vacation. Get out. But then they all started to chip in. They all got together and they all were like, 'Can't beat 'em, join 'em.'"

quicklist: 8title: Pacify Neighbors With Radio Wavestext: It's possible that blasting the Trans-Siberian Orchestra's "Wizards in Winter" on repeat for the entire month of December could tick off a neighbor or two. Many people who use music in their Christmas displays incorporate radio technology to keep the tensions to a minimum. "The music is broadcast over a low power FM transmitter right to their car radios," Mike Cole said.

quicklist: 9title: Electric Cost Are, Supposedly, Less Than You Thinktext: Choosing to use LED lights can dramatically reduce the cost of lighting your Christmas light display. But even with incandescent lights, the bill will probably not break the bank, according to Mike Cole. "If everything came on at the same time, I would be using close to 250 amps," he says. "But actually, with computer-controlled lights, there's only a few on at a time, so my power bill is less than when I had a static display." Exactly how much Cole and his peers spend, however, is anyone's guess: Many big-time Christmas display enthusiasts keep those numbers to themselves. On the website for the Greeley Griswalds 135,000 light display, the Colorado family says, "(I)t's our gift to the community, and you don't talk about the price of a gift."

quicklist: 10title: Be Introspectivetext: Believe it or not, there are actually scientists who have studied Christmas lights and what they say about your community. According to David Sloan Wilson, an evolutionary biologist at Binghamton University in New York, the density of holiday decorating in a neighborhood can demonstrate the strength of the community. "It turns out that this urge to decorate your house is an expression of neighborliness." Wilson told The Chicago Tribune. "Some of the best neighborhoods literally glow more brightly."

quicklist: 11title: Put Out a Tip Jar and Choose a Charitytext: Even if you are putting up decorations just to show your holiday cheer, many of the people we talked to told us that people would leave donations whether they were asked for or not. If you feel uncomfortable taking money for your Christmas display, choose a charity to donate the proceeds to. Arthur Giove of Coram, N.Y. raises money each year for St. Jude Children's Hospital and the Suffolk County Make-a-Wish Foundation. But be wary of sticky fingers -- Jeff Norford, who hosts an elaborate display in Charlottesville, Va., found his tip jar went missing one day. He responded by safeguarding it behind a locked fence.

quicklist: 12title: Keep Up With the Technologytext: LED lighting is the newest revolution in Christmas decorating technology. The lights burn brighter and cost less to use than standard Christmas lights. Fred Loya is always looking out for the newest thing and he was quick to switch over. "The LED lights came into play and they gave a brighter light, so we had to switch lights," he said. " Technology changed. The computer programming would tell us, you know, we have new things available - better programs. So we started making the show a little bit more elaborate each year because of technology."

quicklist: 13title: Get the Proper Permitstext: Scrooge-y neighbors can easily ruin your holiday fun if you don't have the right permits. A food and beverage license might be necessary if you want to hand out goodies like cookies and hot chocolate.

quicklist: 14title: Watch Holiday 'Classics' for Inspirationtext: Nothing gets you in the spirit to deck the halls more than watching Chevy Chase wrangle unruly light strands in "Christmas Vacation." More recently, Danny Devito and Matthew Broderick square off as dueling neighbors in "Deck the Halls." You automatically win if your house can be seen from space like Devito's character's home.

quicklist: 15title: Go the Lazy Man's Routetext: This year, several houses across the country are sprouting "DITTO" signs pointing to their neighbors lavish decorations. Steal their glory and get a chuckle out of it with this easy work-around.

quicklist: 16title: They Don't Have to Be *Christmas* Lightstext: Just because your religion may not celebrate the birth of Christ doesn't mean you can't have a dazzling house to celebrate the season. One Jewish household has gone all out to celebrate the Festival of Lights. "I am aware it's a little untraditional. After a talk with my Rabbi I got the OK that it's Kosher," said Brad Herman of Culver City, Calif.

quicklist: 17title: Storage Is Keytext: If you are going all out with large decorations, remember that everything needs to be stored. Fred Loya, of El Paso, Texas, uses an entire house to store lights and decorations. The Palizatio family of Dyker Heights has their Christmas decorator Lou Nasti store their 15-foot Santa in Nasti's workshop.

quicklist: 18title: Pick the Right Songtext: "Wizards in Winter" and "All I Want for Christmas is You" have been overdone. Consider a non-traditional Christmas tune, or even something totally unrelated to the holidays, like Derek Whitis' holiday salute to the troops.

quicklist: 19title: Safety Firsttext: It's always best to decorate with a friend or family member so they can hold ladders and help you string the lights. It's also never a good idea to get up on the roof right after a snow or ice storm. Try and get your decorating done as early as possible before any wintery conditions make decorating slippery and unpleasant.

quicklist: 20title: Don't be a Grinch! text: Remember whatever happens, it's all about celebrating the holidays together.

ABC News' Astrid Rodrigues contributed to this report.

Watch the full story on "20/20" Friday at 10 p.m. ET.