DOVER – Surrounded by strawberry fields, Ron and Faye Wetherington’s homestead is a year-round sweet spot. But come December, 2091 S. Wooten Road transforms into a magical place.
Each year from December first to the 28th, the bucolic setting turns into Christmas Lane – a spectacular holiday confection created by Lane Wetherington and scores of volunteers that is free and open to the public from 6 to 10 p.m. daily.
Trees blanketed with lights twinkle brightly, teddy bears swing on a merry-go-round and Santa’s plane is ready for that eagerly anticipated flight from the North Pole. Through a telescope, reindeer can be spied tumbling in the sky, and just past the Toy Shop, a miniature train toting toddlers rumbles through a winter wonderland.
About 1,500 visitors strolled through Christmas Lane on a recent Friday evening.
Peter Lapham of Seffner brought son Robert, 3, and daughter Aubree, 11, to see the display.
“We’ve been coming since she was 3,” said Lapham. “It’s great, and there’s hot chocolate and popcorn.”
Jose Camacho, 19, brought best friend Savannah Morales, 16, to view the lights. They paused in front of a massive Christmas tree for a photograph.
“I love it. It is so sparkly and shiny,” said Morales. “It is so pretty.”
The 35-foot-tall tree is the centerpiece of Christmas Lane. Loaded with 72,000 lights, a 17 1/2-foot base diameter and 56 individual panels, it takes six men eight hours to assemble.
“Thousands and thousands of photos have been made of that tree,” said Lane Wetherington. “It is my pride and joy.”
Indeed, there are countless opportunities for photos of children whose eyes are wide with wonder.
“That’s what makes it worth it. It doesn’t get much better than that,” he said.
It wasn’t always this impressive. When the Wetheringtons moved into the house 55 years ago, they put up just one string of lights, said Ron Wetherington. But son Lane loved the glow of the holidays. When his birthday rolled around each November, he would ask for lights as his gift. His collection grew.
“My fascination started with lights,” he said. “That’s always been my passion.”
Did his parents worry about this obsession and the take-over of their yard? “My parents are awesome,” he said with a grin. “They are the best parents in the world.”
Christmas Lane, named from a sign Faye Wetherington had made for her son, got a jumpstart in 1982 with inventory from a local commercial decorating company. Later, retired displays from shopping malls were acquired. Scenes were built and added, eventually resulting in the massive display on the 1 ½ acre front lawn.
“It has grown above and beyond my wildest expectations,” said Lane Wetherington.
“We try to add new items annually to make it enticing to come back to. All the kids love the choo-choo and when Santa Claus is here,” said Lane Wetherington. Santa visits the venue each day from 6 to 8 p.m. through Dec. 23, and from 6 to 7 p.m. on Christmas Eve.
The electric bill for all that awe runs $4,500 to $5,000 a year, he said. “We’re using 168,000 watts of power when we’re fully up.”
In addition to paying the electric bill, it takes about 200 volunteers annually to make Christmas Lane a reality, he said.
“None of this is possible without the volunteers. The volunteers are the backbone of the event.”
Kara Johnson, 26, has been volunteering at Christmas Lane for 10 years. She helps at the concession, train or plays elf for Santa. Early in December, the Folsom Elementary teacher may volunteer one day a week, but as Christmas nears and the crowds swell, she volunteers almost every day.
“It’s fun. I like seeing the joy people get seeing all the decorations,” said Johnson.
“We’ve become like a family here,” she said. “I invited a bunch of (volunteers) to my wedding in February.”
Johnson’s husband, Steven, has been a volunteer at Christmas Lane for eight years, and her father, Greg Mitchell, drives from Davis Islands every day to volunteer.
“My whole family comes and works on Christmas night,” said Johnson.
Volunteers Larry and Mary Bennett travel all the way from Great Falls, Montana, to work behind the scenes “doing more that I even know,” said Lane Wetherington.
Chris Sizemore just walks across the street. Sizemore, who does much of the electrical work at Christmas Lane, has lived next door for 34 years.
“I am here quite a bit. I’m kind of the catch-all guy; whatever needs to be done.”
“I have phenomenal neighbors,” said Lane Wetherington. “They put up with the noise and traffic and lights.”
While volunteers help run the train, man the concession booth, replace lights, provide security and a myriad of other tasks, Ron and Faye Wetherington prepare dinner for 25 or more in a behind-the-scenes kitchen. Volunteers are fed free hearty meals each evening, coming in shifts for food. On a recent evening, the menu included chicken, rice, black beans, Cuban bread and salad.
“They work for food,” joked Ron Wetherington, chopping onions.
Three generations now have visited the display, he said. Couples have gotten engaged at Christmas Lane and, one year, there was a wedding.
“A lot of people come here. It’s a tradition,” he said. “It’s a very busy time, but it’s very rewarding.”
And it may be all the Christmas a child has, he said.
“We receive a special blessing from it.”
“We’ve always felt it was a mission,” Faye Wetherington. “You can never out-give.”
When the giving season is past and the crowds at Christmas Lane disperse, all the trappings of the holiday will be stowed away. Everything from stuffed reindeer to picket fencing to canvas tents will be labeled and returned to its proper place in storage.
“We’ve learned the order in which things come out and things go back in,” said Sizemore.
Lane Wetherington won’t be idle though. An Associate Director of the Florida Strawberry Festival, he’ll roll into January as committee chair of the Strawberry Ball.
And when his work there is done, he’ll be back working on next year’s Christmas Lane.
“You’ve got to work on it all the time. I live, eat and sleep it. It is a year-round thing.”
“It was his first love,” Faye Wetherington said with a smile. “The second is his dog”– a six-year-old Australian shepherd named Jingle Bells.
If You Go
What: Christmas Lane
Where: 2091 S. Wooten Road In Dover. Take State Road 60 to Dover Road, head north on Dover Road, go about two miles and turn right on Wooten Road; or take Martin Luther King Boulevard (SR 574), to Dover Road, turn south on Dover Road, go about two miles and turn left on Wooten Road.
When: Through Dec. 28, daily, from 6 to 10 p.m.
Santa Claus visits: 6 to 8 p.m. daily through Dec. 23; 6 to 7 p.m. on Dec. 24.
Cost: Free, though donations are accepted. Concession stand items include hot chocolate, cappuccino, soda, water, corn dogs, popcorn and cotton candy.