- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 22, 2002

Washington glitters this time of year, offering venues ranging from the seasonally bedecked Ellipse to workplaces made to shine for fancy soirees. The real sparkle, though, can be found at the light shows that are holiday staples in the metro area.

Visitors to the seventh annual City of Gaithersburg Winter Lights Festival will be treated to a spectacular show of more than 300 light displays at least 60 of which are animated. Driving along the 3.5-mile route through Seneca Creek State Park, patrons encounter grazing deer, waving snowmen and prancing reindeer; 20-foot-high archways of red, white and blue; a castle; a train filled with toys; a horse-drawn sled and carolers; a jumping fish splashing into the creek; reindeer leaping over the road; and squirrels running overhead.

Many people make the festival part of their family tradition, says Dianne Coup, the Winter Lights coordinator and a recreation supervisor with the City of Gaithersburg Parks, Recreation and Culture.

"Sometimes they come two and three times a season and bring family from out of town," she says.

The Gaithersburg lights festival is notable because "as you journey through, you can turn a corner and come upon little surprises," Ms. Coup says. "A lot of the other festivals don't have the room we have to stretch our displays out."

Her favorite is the Tunnel of Lights eight or so arches of white lights that stretch over the road.

"To me, it's breathtaking. You get to drive through it two times. It doesn't matter which side of the car you're sitting in it's just spectacular," she says.

The Winter Lights Festival is open 6 to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 6 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday through Dec. 31. The display is closed Dec. 25. Admission is $10 a car, and proceeds benefit local charities. The address is 11950 Clopper Road. From Interstate 270, take Clopper Road west to the park entrance. For more information, call 301/258-6350.

Families can start their own traditions at shows near their own neighborhoods:

•The Miracle of Lights Show at Bull Run Park in Centreville features more than 250 displays through two miles of winding roads. Hosted by the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority, the drive-through show benefits the Healthy Families Fairfax program, which provides services to first-time parents to help prevent child abuse and neglect and promote child health. The show is open nightly from 5:30 to 10:30, except New Year's Eve, and runs through Jan. 4. The cost is $12 per car or van. Directions: The display is located at 7700 Bull Run Drive, Centreville. From the Beltway, take Interstate 66 west to Centreville Exit 52. Go south on Route 29 for two miles, turn left on Old Post Office Road, then follow the signs to Bull Run Regional Park. For more information, call 703/709-KIDS.

•The Festival of Lights in Kensington features a Nativity scene and more than 300,000 lights that blink and twinkle around the Visitors Center at the Washington Temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Visitors can step inside to see decorated trees, an international creche display and nightly musical programs. The show is open every night from 5 to 10 and runs through Jan. 1. Admission is free. Directions: The display is located at 9900 Stoneybrook Drive, Kensington. From the Beltway, take Exit 33 and go north on Connecticut Avenue toward Kensington. Make a right on Beach Drive, which dead-ends at Stoneybrook. Turn left. For information, call 301/587-0144.

•The Garden of Lights at Brookside Gardens in Wheaton is billed as "the ultimate magical visual experience" by its sponsor, the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission. Visitors take a half-mile stroll to enjoy a display featuring a garden of horticultural twinklers. Free musical performances are offered in the Visitors Center Auditorium from 6:30 to 8 p.m. The Garden of Lights is open from 5:30 to 9 p.m. today and tomorrow, Dec. 26 through 30 and Jan. 1 through 5. The last car is admitted at 8:30 p.m. The cost is $10 per car Monday through Thursday and $15 per car Friday, Saturday and Sunday; cash only. Safety regulations require that all visitors must drive to the entrance gate, pay, park and then begin their walk through the light-show display. Directions: The display is located at 1800 Glenallen Ave., Wheaton. For more information, call 301/962-1453.

•The Symphony of Lights in Columbia, Md., features more than 70 animated and stationary displays at Symphony Woods at the Merriwether Post Pavilion. The 1.5-mile drive-through display, which benefits the Howard County General Hospital's Maternal Child Health Services, includes giant light sculptures. The Symphony of Lights runs daily from 6 to 11 p.m. through Jan. 5. Admission is $12 a car. Directions: From Interstate 95, take Route 32 west to Columbia (Exit 38B). Take Route 29 north to Exit 18B and follow the signs to Merriwether Post Pavilion. For information, call 410/740-7666.

• The 16th annual Winter Festival of Lights in Prince George's County, on display at Watkins Regional Park in Upper Marlboro, features a drive-through exhibit of 500,000 twinkling lights. Sponsored by the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, the show is open nightly from 5 to 9 and runs through Jan. 5. Admission is $5 per car or van; free Dec. 25. Directions: Watkins Regional Park is at 301 Watkins Park Drive, Upper Marlboro. From the Capital Beltway, take Exit 15 east onto Central Avenue and continue for approximately three miles. Turn right at Watkins Park Drive and follow to park entrance on right. For more information, call 301/699-2456

•The Lights on the Bay show illuminates a two-mile drive along the shores of the Chesapeake Bay at Sandy Point State Park. The show, which is in its eighth year and benefits Anne Arundel Medical Center, features more than 60 stationary and animated displays, including one of Naval Academy midshipmen tossing their hats in the air and a Colonial village modeled after Annapolis. The show is open daily from 5 to 10 p.m. through Jan. 5. Admission is $12 per vehicle. Directions: The park is at the western terminus of the Bay Bridge, off Route 50/301 at Exit 32. For more information, call 410/295-3161.

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