SEE ROCK CITY, a phrase any southerner has seen, whether in pictures or in person, painted on an old tin roof of a barn or on a bird house in their neighbor’s garden. This season, as you stand at the base of Lookout Mountain, Tenn., you may notice a familiar star hanging from the ledge. Once again, Rock City opens their gates to awe visitors with a brilliant light display they call the Enchanted Garden of Lights.
Since 1993, one of the greatest traditions of Rock City stands as the Enchanted Garden of Lights. This year, Rock City is celebrating 23 years of the holiday tradition that families have made a very special part of their holiday season. What started off as just a few lighted frame scenes – such as the large doves and a gingerbread house that are still on display today – has grown into a display of over one million LED lights. V3 Magazine was invited to tour the park and see what else is to be expected from a place that has continued to impress guests for decades.
The history of the Rock City Gardens as an attraction traces back to the days of the Great Depression. In 1924, a serial entrepreneur and native of the Tennessee hills, Garnet Carter, launched his plan to build a residential community named “Fairyland”, named in honor of his wife Frieda’s love of European folklore on top of Lookout Mountain.
Carter grew up taking in the beautiful views that could be admired from Lookout Mountain and the large oddly-shaped boulders that would later become known as “The Rock City” by local Tennesseans. One of the features of his new community would be the presence of a golf course. However, the course took longer to develop than expected, leading Carter to develop a miniature version of a golf course that he hoped would entertain his residents.
The game was well received by Carter’s residents and soon the rest of the nation. The entrepreneur in Carter promoted the game he deemed “Tom Thumb Golf” and founded a company. While he was busy traveling the nation representing his new venture, Frieda decided she would busy herself by developing a small section of the 700 acres of Fairyland into a rock garden. She would take daily walks around the garden, pulling along a string with her to mark the way. Today, her walks are some of the very same trails that wind their way through the rocks of one of Tennessee’s most well-known attractions.
During this holiday season, as guests stroll and even sometimes squeeze their way through the trails that wind around Rock City, they will be immersed in a world of lights that glow in a boast of tradition, dance to the beat of Christmas carols, take them to a world of ice and snow, or even lead them to meet the man in the red suit himself.
Will Jackson, senior manager of innovation for Rock City, and his team may have the most daunting task of the holiday season in Tennessee. Jackson’s job is to run the department of Rock City that holds the sole purpose of enhancing guests’ experiences and developing new ways to impress those who have come to “See Rock City.”
“One of our responsibilities is producing the designs for all of the events of Rock City, and it’s something we are planning year round,” says Jackson. “For the Enchanted Garden of Lights, this means creating event plans, color palettes, brand guides for each realm – really creating each one to be a unique experience. All year we are asking ourselves what guests would really enjoy or what would spark a child’s imagination, and then we do it.
Jackson and his crew began work on the light display the day after Labor Day, and traditionally open the Enchanted Garden of Lights to the public the Friday before Thanksgiving. One of the biggest additions this season to the garden is what Jackson calls, “The Dancing Christmas Trees.” This display
allows guest to walk through an array of lighted trees, lighted frames, and string lights that are all synchronized to flicker and flash to the beat of upbeat Christmas music.
“We started planning for the Dancing Christmas Tree Show with all of the computer synchronization and sound in late April, designed it in May and have been working on it all through the summer. It is the biggest thing we’ve added this year,” Jackson states.
The Enchanted Garden of Lights is separated into four “realms”, each having their own specific theme and color palette. Guests begin their journey at the ticket plaza, beside the original gatehouse that has been around since 1932.
Their first stop (if following the map) will be the Magic Forest, where guests are introduced to the dancing trees, walk through an elf village, and even go through the Fairyland Caverns.
Next, guest will begin their walk through Yule Town, where they are greeted by a brilliant twenty-six-foot Christmas tree in the Garden’s Gateway Plaza. In this realm, guests can admire a lighted nativity scene, gaze at massive lighted-frame doves just above their heads, squeeze through the boulders of Needle’s Eye, and end by walking through a row of Santa’s toy soldiers.
Guests then find themselves at the gates of the Arctic Kingdom, the icy realm where Inara the Ice Queen and Jack Frost live and are happy to take a selfie. Here, guests will see Christmas trees in all white and blue, twinkling penguins and polar bears, and trees with electric white leaves.
Your journey ends at the last realm, The North Pole Village, where an old stone bridge will take you across a deep drop and open your eyes to arguably the best view in the state of Tennessee named “Lover’s Leap” after a tale from Native American folklore. Every year since 1971, Rock City hangs a beautiful star that symbolizes the hymn, “Do You Hear What I Hear?” above High Falls. In this realm, you will get to meet Old Saint Nick himself, listen to carols in the North Pole Lodge, and even do some Christmas shopping.
Since the Enchanted Garden of Lights tradition began, it has grown not only in lights but in those who attend each year. Meagan Jolley, who serves as the Public Relations Manager for Rock City, is thrilled with what the event has become.
“We’ve certainly grown in attendance every year – and yes, this past Thanksgiving weekend we had a record number of guests attend the event,” says Jolley. “Attendance has continued to increase annually. We can say it’s truly become a tradition which follows right in line with Rock City’s mission, to create memories worth repeating for our guests and our partners!”
This year, take time to get away from the hustle of the holidays and become immersed in a world of light and natural beauty.