PLANT CITY – Rebekah Byrtus grew up visiting Christmas Lane, a holiday wonderland with thousands of lights, animated displays and kiddie train.
The 24-year-old mother is following the same tradition with her own 3-year-old daughter Jada.
“I have very many happy memories visiting Christmas Lane. One year, we even had a family reunion that included a visit to Christmas Lane. I’m bringing Jada every year,” Byrtus said.
Byrtus said Christmas Lane is better than ever now that it has moved from rural Dover to the Florida Strawberry Festival Expo Hall. Christmas Lane includes more displays, expanded concessions and, for the first time, a stage for entertainment.
Best of all, most of Christmas Lane fits inside the 15,000-square-foot Expo Hall, away from the mercies of Mother Nature.
On a recent rainy night, Lane Wetherington, a strawberry grower who founded Christmas Lane more than 30 years ago in his parents front yard, was counting his blessings for an indoor venue.
“I don’t have to worry about covering anything or worry about what might get wet and ruined. We can just shut the doors and keep the weather outside,” he said.
Wetherington started Christmas Lane in the early 1980s with a modest but attractive display that caught the eye of passing motorists outside the Wooten Street home of his parents, Faye and Ron.
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 Wetheringtons’ 1 ½ acre front lawn
Wetherington bought some displays from sources that included Disney; others were created by his friends.
He has dozens of artificial Christmas trees up to 40 feet tall; a Ferris wheel with teddy bears for passengers and a stuffed polar bear flying an airplane.
With a circle of friends that grew into an army of volunteers, he was able to expand Christmas Lane into an attraction that draws as many as 45,000 visitors a year. He estimates assembly alone takes about 18,000 hours, not counting the time volunteers spend helping run the place. The operation is all volunteer, except for such paid positions as ticket-sellers and parking attendants.
“The backbone of Christmas Lane is the volunteers,” Wetherington said. “Without them I couldn’t do it.”
Chris Sizemore and Wade Wilkins, who have volunteered since the 1980s, said they like to help out because it’s an event that’s beloved by the community.
Plus, “I get to see a lot of people I only see once a year, at Christmas Lane,” Sizemore said.
Another longtime volunteer, George Coleman, brought along his sons, Chase, 12, and Brett, 18. They helped run the miniature train on a recent day, including helping children get on and off.
“This is for the community and we love giving back,” Coleman said.
Wetherington said that thanks to the larger venue, he able to unpack some Christmas displays he accumulated over the years that didn’t fit at his parents place.
Christmas Lane, for the first time, has an admission charge – $5 for 13 and older and $2 for 4 to 12; 3 and younger admitted free. It offers free admission Mondays for active and retired military members; Tuesdays for school employees; and Wednesdays for first responders. Identification is required.
Lane said attendance has been running ahead of previous years, in part because of the new location in the city.
Christmas Lane is open 6 to 10 p.m. daily through Jan. 3.
Helen Apostolatos and her fiancé, Joseph DeJesus, brought their children, Sabastian DeJesus, 2, Demetrius Gonzalez, 5, Jericho Gonzalez, 7, Javan Parnther, 12 and Raymond Parnther III, 13, on a recent night.
Javan said he got a kick out of Santa Claus.
“It was really neat, especially since he brought Mrs. Claus,” he said.
Apostolatos, a Riverview resident, said she enjoyed the many displays, including a new one with biblical characters huddled around a manager with baby Jesus.
“My favorite was the Nativity scene,” she said. “After all, that’s what Christmas is all about.”
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