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FEATURE

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t’s the last days of September in Wellford, South Carolina, and even though the temperatures still hover in the 80s, there’s a hint of Autumn in the air. Around the area, Halloween decorations have begun to pop up here and there, but at Hollywild Animal Park, preparation for the annual Holiday Lights Safari Benefit has been in the works since, well, since last Christmas season. It will take from now until November 21 to erect the hundreds of displays, string the millions of lights, and gather the necessary participants—both human and animal alike—for one of the Upstate’s most popular and wildest events of the season. Hollywild itself was built around the old homestead of

the Meeks family in Spartanburg County, and it was here in fact that the zoo began. The Meeks family, and youngest son David especially, had an affinity for animals and they began showcasing typical farm animals and native species as the M & M Zoo. David’s animal expertise broadened unexpectedly when in college a roommate showed up with a pet monkey—which promptly destroyed the dorm room. David traded out repairing the room for possession of the primate and rest is history. Since 1978, members of David’s menagerie have been featured in 62 full-length movies and countless commercials and advertising campaigns, hence the change in name to Hollywild Animal Park. Over the years

w ritte n by SH E R I L BE N NE T T TURNER & photo g raphed by KRIS DECKER

It’s Showtime at

Hollywild

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the park has grown to encompass nearly 100 acres, where one is free to feed the animals, take a wild safari ride, and check out the numerous “movie stars” in residence. The Holiday Lights Safari began with a small local following, but has since become a holiday tradition for families and various groups from all over. When the benefit began 19 years ago, the zoo was in financial danger of closing because of the high cost of maintaining the animals. “Then one night,” David remembers, “my family was driving back from somewhere when we saw all of these Christmas lights. My son, who was just five at the time, said ‘Why can’t we do that?’ And I thought to myself, well . . . why not?”

It just so happens at the time, the PTL Club’s Heritage USA was being liquidated, so David drove to Fort Mill, SC with the idea of getting a few thousand dollars worth of Christmas displays to decorate the park. “When I got there,” David says, “the guy said, ‘Why don’t you just go down there and check out what we have and give me a bid on all of it?’ Well, it was like if you went to Wal-Mart for a couple of rolls of duck tape, and while you were there, they said why don’t you look over the whole store and give me a quote on all of it. There were buildings and building—huge buildings—just with Christmas stuff. One warehouse had thousands and thousands of lightbulbs just loose in the walkways, probably

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several hundred thousand.” After going back and forth on the bids, David wound up with it all, and Hollywild’s Holiday Lights Safari was born. “We had our doubting Thomases that first year,” David laughs “I remember this one lady who worked here said, ‘Do you really think all these people are going to come?’ And I said, ‘I think so.’ She said, ‘Wow! This is a lot of work. Do you really think those people will come?’ Well, she was out on the road with a little old money pouch, and the first night we opened, she was surprised there were almost a hundred cars that came through. That was on a Tuesday. The next night there were 300 cars, the next night there were 900 cars. Today there are around 1600 cars on any given night. It’s grown because it’s a fun thing, everyone likes it, it’s not just lights, there’s something for everyone. Kids like it, older people like it—boys, girls, teenagers.” And there really is something for everyone at Hollywild’s Holiday Light Safari. From feeding the free-roaming animals from your car in the Enchanted Deer Forest, to taking “the walk” through Santa’s Village where you just might find the jolly man himself tending to his animals in Santa’s Barn. Explore Santa’s reindeer cottages, where children especially enjoy bottle-feeding the baby yaks, donkeys, and deer, or take a pony ride through a magical lit forest. There’s also a 32-foot lookout tower, offering an amazing view of the property, as well as Mrs. Claus’ Candy Factory,

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offering treats of a different kind. Hungry for more? Roast you own hotdog over a giant communal bonfire, or enjoy other yummy treats like hamburgers, nacho chips, sandwiches, cookies, cakes, popcorn, or cotton candy. And, when the air is nippy, nothing beats a cup of hot chocolate to warm tiny fingers. After each Holiday Lights Safari season, David evaluates any problem areas and draws up the plans for the following year’s production. There are color schemes to consider, light and display placements to work out, and new routes and activities to be worked into the total picture. Keeping the traffic flowing has always been a major consideration and, as visitors increase, so does the traffic. “Last year, on some nights there were people backed up to the new Verne Smith Parkway,” David says. “They were backed up on Highway 29, also. This year we will have the six lanes to come in, but then they will split into two lanes instead of one, all the way until you get to the Enchanted Deer Forest. Because we have some people who want to stop and take pictures of all the lights—and we don’t want to rush them—we are trying to accommodate them as well as those that want to go a little faster. We’ve also designed staggered double archways so people can switch lanes, respectfully of course, if they want to go around someone taking pictures.” In addition to adding another driving lane, this year there will also be newly decorated areas throughout the park, with more

displays (look for the once popular Noah’s Ark to reappear), and an improved and expanded Village of Bethlehem. “It keeps us busy from the 1st of September to January 1st,” says David. “We have a day crew and a night crew every day, setting it up, operating it, and keeping it going. It’s just like a huge production and I guarantee you with any musical that’s ever been done, if a mistake is made the director knows about it and gets upset because they want the quality to be there. That’s the way I feel. I want it all to be working. It requires a tremendous amount of time, sometimes it’s raining too hard, or the power surge goes, or the wind blows things over, but I like everything to be there regardless. I tell the staff, you only have one chance to get it right. People come here to have fun, they don’t want to hear lectures, and they don’t come here for excuses. I tell everyone with this production, you don’t make excuses you make adjustments, because when we open those gates, it’s showtime!”

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09-11/12 It's Showtime at Hollywild