New light shows make Philadelphia Christmas brighter than ever

"Bright Lights, Big Santa" at the Blue Cross RiverRink "has a silly flavor to it." It's every hour on the hour from 5 to 11 p.m.
"Bright Lights, Big Santa" at the Blue Cross RiverRink "has a silly flavor to it." It's every hour on the hour from 5 to 11 p.m. (ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: December 07, 2013

For Lauren Huezo and her family, the holidays mean a trip to Longwood Gardens for the dancing fountain, a stop at Macy's to hear the Wanamaker Organ, and a jaunt to the Comcast Center to enjoy the much, much larger-than-life seasonal lobby show.

On a recent weeknight, Huezo added to that "must-do" list, huddled with her husband and two sons watching Franklin Square's new offering, "Electrical Spectacle."

"And now we have a fourth," said Huezo, of the Graduate Hospital neighborhood, referring to her holiday traditions. "This is great, with the new lights - it's well-lit and welcoming."

Set to music recorded by the Philly Pops, the syncopated show featuring a 12-foot-tall kite and a 6-foot-long key definitely held the attention of Huezo's 2½-year-old son Mason.

"The kids seem to love it," said Amy Needle, president and chief executive officer of Historic Philadelphia, which runs the venue. "And the parents are really appreciative that the kids are occupied."

This is a city ablaze with holiday lights. Of course, there are the trees, including the ones towering near City Hall and in Rittenhouse Square and the circle of sparkling greens in Chestnut Hill. There's the always bright Boathouse Row, the twinkling Cira Centre, and the over-the-top neighborhood displays that take over blocks in South Philadelphia.

Then there are the more formal shows, usually set to music and intended to dazzle, which is where Philadelphia really shines. Of course there's the atrium program at Macy's, a favorite and a tradition since Wanamaker began it in 1956. Beyond the city, the display at Longwood Gardens features more than 500,000 lights and usually sells out quickly.

Comcast estimates about a million people have enjoyed its Holiday Spectacular since it began in 2008 - and this year it has been spiced up with the addition of scenes from another Philadelphia tradition, the Walnut Street Theatre's annual production of A Christmas Carol, plus penguins and skaters, all joining the perennial pirouetting of dancers from Pennsylvania Ballet.

Now add Franklin Square and the Blue Cross RiverRink - part of the inaugural Waterfront Winterfest on Penn's Landing - to that list of must-sees. Organizers at both venues hope they are creating new traditions.

"Electrical Spectacle," show designer John Carter said, "is meant to be unlike any other holiday show. There are no Christmas trees." His favorite moment comes during "Carol of the Bells," when most of the square goes dark and lights whip overhead like a loose current.

The show is super-efficient, he said, running on 10 percent of the power of the old-style lights. "You can plug it into your house and it would work," he said. "Hopefully, Ben Franklin would be proud."

At the nearby Blue Cross RiverRink, local visual production company Klip Collective is presenting "Bright Lights, Big Santa," a 3-D video show projected onto trees and set to more nontraditional music.

"Ours is unlike any holiday light show out there, something that's never been seen here before," said Jodie Milkman, vice president of programming and communications for the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation, sponsor of the new Winterfest. "Our mission is to reimagine and reenvision an authentically Philadelphia holiday experience."

Ricardo Rivera, the innovative video designer who is Klip's lead partner, said he wanted to create a show that would capture everyone's attention; last year, when he took his 5-year-old daughter to another light show, it was halfway over and the girl was still wondering when it would begin.

"This is the first year, and I'm trying to see what this could be someday," he said. "I wanted a light show that I would see and I would like."

Visitors should look for a hip-hop Santa and some elves doing "The Running Man" dance, he said. They should listen for the traditional "Silver Bells" and stay alert for a mash-up of The Nutcracker.

"Our show definitely has a silly flavor to it," Rivera said. "It's something the kids will like, but it'll make the parents laugh, too."

Sharon Tice DelCotto, who was out enjoying the Franklin Square show with her 13-month-old son, Marc, said the new shows "make everything so much more vibrant."

"People from the suburbs can come in and hit Franklin Square and Macy's and the rink at Penn's Landing," said Tice DelCotto, of Fairmount. "They can make a whole day of it, or a weekend."


Lighting Up the Season

Want to get into the spirit? Here are a few area light shows that might push you toward jollity.

Blue Cross RiverRink

101 S. Columbus Blvd. (at Market Street)

Until Jan. 5

Hourly from 5 to 11 p.m.

This is the first year of Waterfront Winterfest, which will feature "Bright Lights, Big Santa," a 3-D show set to music. Not a skater? Shop at the Art Star Holiday Market, stop for a seasonal cocktail or craft beer inside a heated tent, or order from local chef George Sabatino's seasonal menu, which includes smoked turkey legs and mashed potato fritters.

Comcast Holiday Spectacular

Comcast Center, 1701 John F. Kennedy Blvd.

Until 4 p.m. Jan. 1

Shows start at the top of each hour from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. except weekdays at 5 p.m.

Now in its sixth year, the Comcast Holiday Spectacular is a 15-minute music and video show on one of the world's largest high-resolution LED displays. New scenes this year include the Walnut Street Theatre's A Christmas Carol, animated penguins, and ice skaters. On Saturdays, children can meet Chica, the chicken who stars in the Sprout network's The Sunny Side Up Show.

Franklin Square

Sixth and Race Streets

Through Dec. 31

Every half hour from 4:30 p.m. to 8 p.m.

"Electrical Spectacle" features two seven-minute shows that alternate throughout the evening. The lights are syncopated to winter-themed music recorded by the Philly Pops. Other features, like the miniature golf course, will remain open during this time. There are warming stations around the square.

Longwood Gardens

1001 Longwood Rd., Kennett Square

Through Jan. 12

Outdoor lights come on at 3:30 p.m., when the illuminated fountain-and-music shows begin.

Besides its light shows, "A Longwood Christmas" features live musical performances, a grand tea, and extravagant fruit-adorned trees. (The 18-foot Douglas fir in the East Conservatory covered with 175 handmade glass pears is not to be missed.) Advance tickets are required and entry is timed.

Macy's Center City

1300 Market St.

Through Dec. 31

Daily at 10 a.m, noon, and 2, 4, 6 and 8 p.m.

The original Philly holiday light show features narration by Julie Andrews and music from the Wanamaker Organ. Visitors can enjoy scenes from The Nutcracker and Frosty the Snowman. The big man himself will also be in the store for some lap-sitting and list-sharing until Dec. 24. Then he's got work to do.

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