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VOL. 40 | NO. 49 | Friday, December 2, 2016

Jellystone show gives joy to residents, visitors

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Visitors to the Jellystone park RV resort enjoy more than 1 million lights synchronized to music and visit with Santa, all without leaving their car.

-- Photograph Courtesy Of Jellystone Park, Nashville

The former Marine staff sergeant swears living in an RV resort filled with untold numbers of dancing Christmas lights and displays is among the best things he’s done in the years since he returned from the elder Bush’s Gulf War.

“Life throws you turns, and you learn to take them,” says John Guthrie, in a quiet summation of how he and his family ended up living in a 1967 Greyhound bus at Jellystone Park, the previously mentioned resort. (When I read that quote from John, I think of Yogi Berra’s “When you get to the fork in the road, take it.”)

This story involves a totally different Yogi – not the guy who is among the most beloved baseball players of all time, whose malapropisms made him timeless – but rather cartoon hero, Yogi Bear.

“We absolutely love to be here,” says John, when asked what it’s like to have thousands of cars winding along a two-mile trail of dancing lights in the park named for the home turf of Baby Boomer cartoon icon Yogi Bear.

(Perhaps this is a good place to note that when the beloved Yankee died in 2015, the first line of the Associated Press obituary read: “New York Yankees Hall of Fame catcher Yogi Bear has died. He was 90.” An embarrassing Boo Boo.)

“I enjoy spending time with Santa Claus and the kids,” John adds as we talk about the Dancing Lights of Christmas attraction that draws long lines of cars filled with adults and children, eyes all aglow, on a trip through the musically synchronized (on car radios) holiday lights show.

Most of John’s time spent in this magical trailer park attraction is spent at Santa’s Village, the HQ of a jolly old elf (the real one, they tell me), who offers up holiday movies, a bonfire and cocoa at the end of the lights display.

You could say this village – where real life takes over for synchronized lights – is roughly akin to the proverbial pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

But, of course, it’s completely different: marshmallows kissed gooey by the open flames are the “treasure” at the end of the lights display.

“It’s another life experience,” says the former Marine, who moved his family from Bowling Green, Kentucky, last summer so his wife, Christine, could be closer to her work at HCA.

They are only here for awhile, as they plan to buy a house soon. But for now, this trailer park is home, and they love it and love that they are pretty much surrounded by Christmas, new-found friends and miles of slowly moving, joy-filled cars each evening.

Jellystone Park – which you can’t miss if you drive out Music Valley Drive and keep your eyes open for the sign decorated with a big Yogi Bear head – is in reality a luxury, upscale RV resort, a campground with style and grace. But I like to boil it to the basics when I ask my holiday visitors: “How would you like to go drive through a trailer park and see millions of dancing lights?”

It’s a unique attraction in Music City, perhaps a mile or so from the politically and geometrically correct corporate hoopla and glistening wizardry of the light show at Gaylord Opryland Resort.

I prefer Jellystone Park, which is why I decide to drop in during daylight hours to further explore this phenomenon.

Most of the people who park here are transients, members of the RV culture, either retirees or perhaps families who home-school their kids, parking here a few days before leaving Nashville to continue a journey to other great U.S. attractions, perhaps Gettysburg, the Statue of Liberty, Mount Rushmore or Trump Tower.

But there is a contingent of 15 families who call this resort “home” year-round and who often pitch in to make sure everything’s going OK with the light show that draws holiday celebrants to their neighborhood.

While strangers are welcomed, they no longer are strangers if they stick around long enough.

“I’m only talking to you because you have that really cool Led Zeppelin shirt on,” says Janet Stowers, 50. She’s sitting on a park bench while we talk for a bit about the magic that will happen soon, when the sun sets and the trailer park in front of us comes to brightly lighted life.

This place is her paradise. Not only did she retire from life to become a housekeeper here; Janet and her husband, Anthony, live here.

To be sure, this is not your average trailer park any more than Yogi is your average bear. I’m out here at Jellystone Park RV Resort – just a mile or so from Cooter’s Place, a Dukes of Hazzard-themed store and museum – because this has become a “must” holiday stop for me and my family.

They say The Dancing Lights at Jellystone Park lured many thousands of people last year. There are no records of how many came. From 5-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, and 5-11 Saturday and Sunday, moms and dads, exhausted by all this over-the river-and-through-the-woods crap, can fork over $25 a carload to drive their children awe-struck through the trailer park’s light displays.

Janet says she and Anthony see those lights dance every day. She’s seen the lights go up and come down for the season. Still she admits to high-pitched excitement come sundown, when the lights start flashing, a dazzling display synchronized to music on the car radio.

Her own empty nest syndrome brought her here. Janet and Anthony’s children had grown up and moved away from their home “10 minutes away,” spurring her to answer an ad and pick up a little extra income as seasonal help at Jellystone.

“I used to bring my kids out here camping when they were young,” she adds, noting her love affair with this park has deep roots, her passion amplified when the seasonal job turned full-time.

“My kids were all grown and we had all this room (in the house), and I’d been working out here and decided this was absolutely wonderful.

“Last year, I gave up my house and got into my little RV and we moved out here. If I’d have known I’d be having so much fun, I’d have done it sooner.”

Of course, there are all kinds of resort activities year-round out here, and Janet and Anthony love to make friends with the full-time campers, as well as the RV touring types who park here for a day, week or even a few months before jostling back onto that long and lonesome highway through Donald Trump’s America.

She, like the former leatherneck mentioned above, will vouch that this acreage is a year-round nirvana for the Airstream, Winnebago and converted Greyhound set.

Even so they gleefully attest that something special begins toward the end of September when full-time Jellystoners are asked to move to one end of the park so Mike Scalf and his company can begin installing the year’s lights display (open through Jan. 1).

Just like Clark Griswold, Mike likes to make every year bigger and better, something that cheers the full-timers.

“The coolest thing to me is where it’s at,” says Mike, leaning against his white pickup as shadows lengthen and zero hour nears.

“You go through it and all the lights are just dancing around you,” says Mike, who begins overseeing the lights installation on Sept. 25 and, of course, dismantles it all in January, leaving only darkness, a few RVs and soul-sucking winter reality behind.

Mike’s Bristol company oversees lighting displays at other locales, but he spends the whole time here.

“I don’t have a wife because no one would put up with me,” he says, with a laugh. For 5½ months this is home to me,” he explains. “Nashville’s a big Music City, so having lights, accompanied by music, out here at this park is a natural.”

He’s been doing this show for eight years, and the growing tourist trade makes it clear the show has a glistening future.

“There’s more’n a million lights out here,” notes the 42-year-old. “One year we thought about actually counting them, but then we thought ‘Why?’”

Indeed. It’s just one more magical mystery during this holiday season.

At the end of the light show – you drive your vehicle 5½ mph (the posted speed limit, or as Yogi’s signage says “bearly moving”) – through the trailer park and end at Santa’s Village, where vendors set up, marshmallows are roasted over an open fire, funnel cake is fresh, and – of course – the Real Santa Claus greets each visitor.

“The best part about doing this is watching the people,” Mike explains. “As people come through here, the kids are hanging out of the sun roof, the windows, van doors. Their eyes are so big. It’s really neat.”

The glimmer in his own eyes signals he loves it out here and has found his truest calling after dabbling in other careers.

“It’s a fun job. I enjoy it,” he says. With daylight diminishing he doesn’t have much time to talk with an old, odd (??) journalist.

“I’m fixin’ to go down to McDonald’s (a few hundred yards away),” he adds, tapping at his growling stomach as he climbs back up into his pickup. “I go there all the time. Health food.”

It’s also about time for Janet and others to get things under way at Santa’s Village.

“How can I not have the Christmas spirit when I’m around Santa Claus two months out of the year” Janet asks.

“We had a guy who was up on an airplane flying over Nashville,” she says. “As soon as he landed, he rented a car and came out here. He said ‘I saw this from the sky and had to see what it was.’”

Janet will tell you Jellystone – not Opryland – has the best display because it is interactive and lights the imagination as families drive through.

Part of her opinion is, of course, shaped by neighborhood pride in the friendly refuge she and Anthony found after deserting the material world.

“We say ‘we escaped from the real world,’” she says just before trekking over to Santa’s Village, her post for the night.

“How can this be a bad job?” she asks. “It’s so much fun. If I ever start really working, I’ll have to retire.”

Instead, she is content as a part of the fabric of this glistening trailer park where sugar-plum dreams are birthed in the minds of the youngsters and, doubtless, their millennial parents (as well as old Boomers like me.)

And even when it’s not holiday lights time, this is a popular resort among the RV community, she notes.

“I meet people from all walks of life who come here. Some of them are Europeans. They fly to California and rent RVs and drive across country,” Janet says. “Some don’t speak a lick of English, but I’ve never met a mean person out here.”

Janet Stowers, left, who works in housekeeping at Jellystone Park – which she and her husband call home – and activities director Kati George are two people who gladly preach about the wonder of the holiday lights that draw thousands to drive through the RV resort during the holidays. It’s more than just business to them and others who work and/or live in the park that’s not far from the better-known corporate wonder of Opryland’s light show.

-- Tim Ghianni | The Ledger

The fact charities benefit from the lights display makes her proud. Many tickets are given to Ronald McDonald House, where they sell them for $15 apiece, all money going to that charity.

Mondays and Tuesdays people can bring three cans of food for $5 off admission price. Last year 2½ tons of food was collected and donated to Second Harvest Food Bank.

This year there also is an 8-foot-tall angel tree from which Santa’s Village visitors are able to pull tags and “adopt” underprivileged kids, giving them the toys they would not have gotten otherwise.

Kati George, 21, is the activities director at the resort, which during prime season bustles with tourists – many staying put all summer. There are summertime programs for the youngsters down at the pool as well as activities like tie-dying and playing bingo.

In the wintertime Kati spends most of her time in the small convenience store where tickets are sold. (She also was busy preparing the angel tree tags on the day I visited.)

Kati admits to being among the biggest fans of the Dancing Lights: “It’s beautiful. It’s like a magical wonderland. I feel like the lights make everyone happy.”

John 47, and his family – wife Christine and son Armstrong, 6 – have lived here since May.

John, who is self-employed and describes his technical work in details that I won’t try to (or cannot) translate, is downright joyous when talking about Jellystone’s allure.

“We lived near Bowling Green, Kentucky,’’ he says. “My wife works in Nashville for HCA. With all the growth here in Nashville, her trip went from being an hour and 10 minutes to “over two hours one way,” so we decided to move to Nashville.”

They were able to sell their home because about a year before the family moved here, he bought “a 1967 Greyhound bus with 112,000 original miles. These things were designed to go 3-4 million.”

“We started the project in September of last year. It took me five months. We completely gutted it and rebuilt it.”

Looking to lessen his wife’s drive, he decided Jellystone – where he and his family had camped in Yogi’s shadow before – was the place to be.

“We pulled into Jellystone, and now my wife’s only got a 15-minute drive to work,” he says, adding that his own duties include home-schooling (Greyhound-schooling?) their son.

It wasn’t until September that he learned he was going to be living in a city of lights.

“That’s when they told us they’d have to collect everyone who lived here and move to one side of the park so they could prepare for the light show.”

To him, it was a simple process. “We unplugged a couple of lines and fired it up and brought it to the new site.”

The actual residential RV group lives about 100 yards from the dancing lights.

“I will say foremost that the staff here at Jellystone has been like family to us. They’ve always treated everybody here like family.”

Most nights John is at Santa’s Village helping to direct parking.

“I was sitting in the parking lot one night. We have these colorful wands we use to direct traffic. There was this little kid in the car. The windows were down.

“I said ‘You know who’s inside the tent? Santa Claus is inside.’ He got this big smile on his face. He could not wait to see Santa Claus.”

Finally, after spending an afternoon in Jellystone Park, I figure it’s time to address the issue of Yogi, the big cartoon bear, his long-suffering pal Boo Boo and the ranger who spends his life rescuing pic-a-nic baskets in distress.

When I was growing up, Yogi Bear – like his pal Huckleberry Hound (remember “the Huckleberry Hound-dog Howdy?”) – was as big a part of pop culture and shared many 1950s Philco TV afternoons and weekends with The Lone Ranger, Sky King and Larry, Moe and Curly.

If you are of my age, someplace in those dark – and perhaps damaged recesses – you have the Yogi Bear theme song squirreled away..: “Yogi Bear is smarter than the average bear, Yogi Bear is always in the Ranger’s hair…. He will sleep ’til noon, but before it’s dark, he’ll have every picnic basket that’s in Jellystone Park.”

Of course, Yogi is just a cartoon character (if you believe otherwise, please call me).

The reality out here is not about kleptomaniac bears wearing ties, etc. Rather it’s all about the lights and how they chase away holiday melancholy.

Janet flashes her own near-constant smile as she prepares for the joyful, evening traffic jam.

“If people get here in a bad mood, they don’t leave that way.”

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