A favorite holiday tradition for Fort Hood families and the Central Texas community, the 23rd annual Nature in Lights is back and brighter than ever at Belton Lake Outdoor Recreation Area.
Overlooking Belton Lake, the 5.5-mile stretch at BLORA is filled with traditional, themed, funny and spiritual Christmas lights, designed by Lisa Lorenz-Bass, the program coordinator for Fort Hood Outdoor Recreation Department.
“We present Nature in Lights as a Christmas gift to the community and it has become a holiday tradition to the many families who return,” Lorenz-Bass said.
She revealed Nature in Lights was originally thought of as a way to bring people into the park during its off-season. The annual event began with 58 displays in 1998. She said she knew the lights would be a hit when they reached more than 167,000 guests in the inaugural year. Since then, they receive 150,000 average seasonal participation.
“We were just trying to find a way to utilize the park year-round,” she said. “Historically, besides the summer season, nobody really came out. This was a way to draw them out and see what all the park has to offer year-round.”
Lorenz-Bass is the annual event’s organizer, planner and designer, among her many other duties at BLORA. She revealed that someone at BLORA is working on Nature in Lights year-round. Pulling out a large binder for this year’s light displays, Lorenz-Bass said she nicknames every display and keeps them organized by location, along with photos of what the displays look like lit up at night.
She plans the light displays several years out, revealing that she is currently planning the theme for 2023. The planning stage involves a lot of creativity as she designs the displays herself on her computer. After designing the displays and determining the size of each one, she hands the designs off to the facility operations manager, who also happens to be her husband.
Managing a crew of 14 people, Dennis Bass plays a big role at BLORA and Nature in Lights. He is in charge of keeping BLORA beautiful, but he is also the one who brings his wife’s ideas to life. After his crew sketches out a life-sized design with sidewalk chalk, they begin bending raw metal into the various shapes to match the outline. After the metal matches the shape of the design, they begin attaching lights to the metal.
As the Christmas season wraps up, they have to take down the lights and begin creating new ones to be used the following season. The display creations normally take place from January to June, with the crew creating up to 12 new displays each year.
“It’s kind of a non-stop process,” Lorenz-Bass said. “Someone’s working on Nature in Lights all year round, even though it might not be for the current year.”
Bass explained that the extreme weather conditions in Central Texas are hard on the displays, so while he is building new displays, he also has to maintain the older ones. He said the wiring lasts around five or six years. When the wiring goes out, they strip down the displays, repaint the weathered metal and then attach new lights.
Shortly after making new displays, they have to turn around and start putting the lights back up for the next season. Lorenz-Bass said they have nearly 300 displays in their inventory, so they rotate them out, depending on the pre-determined themes for the year. She said she changes where lights are located and adds in new lights along the route to keep things fresh for returning visitors.
Despite all the hard work, Lorenz-Bass said it’s all worth it once vehicles start coming in to see the lights.
“You can stand outside and listen to all the kiddos,” Lorenz-Bass said. “They’re looking out the windows or the skylights and they’re just singing and having a good time. We have a radio station that plays music, so as you drive through you can get on our station and listen to Christmas music.”
Although it’s difficult to choose a favorite from among the more than 140 displays, she said she has a soft spot for the nativity, which is a large displays that spans roughly the length of a football field. She said she likes the nativity because it’s true to the Christmas season.
“A lot of people like Santa and his whale,” Lorenz-Bass said. “There’s a Santa sitting in his little boat with a fishing pole and he’s animated. When you first see it, he’s just sitting in the boat and then he throws it and you see this whale come up and get big.”
Bass said his favorite is a display called Santa’s Surprise. The highly animated display features Santa Claus reaching into his bag and pulling out a tree, but it’s just a stem. Santa shakes the tree, which puffs out into a big tree.
“He throws it onto the ground and then reaches into the bag, pulls out a present and then throws it underneath the tree,” Bass said. “I’ve always liked it because it has a lot of animation to it.”
The 5.5-mile route is full of surprises and can take as little as 30 minutes or as long as three hours, as people stop to take photos. Because of that, Lorenz-Bass said there are three stops along the route, each featuring something different. This year, she said they added Santa’s Den, which isa large tent with inflatables for the children to enjoy.
Before exiting the park, Bass said people should be prepared for the light tunnel. What began in 1998 as a 200 foot tunnel has grown into a 500 foot tunnel. He said vehicles usually like to go through the tunnel by themselves, so other vehicles do not interfere with photos.
Due to popular demand, T-shirts and Christmas ornaments will be available for purchase this year. Lorenz-Bass also revealed visitors coming on Mondays through Wednesdays will receive a complimentary Nature in Lights ornament, while supplies last.
Nature in Lights will run daily from 5:30-11 p.m. through Jan. 5. Tickets are $20 per vehicle, more for larger vehicles. It is located at BLORA, 7999 Sparta Road. For more information or advance tickets, call 254-287-2523.