Americus Times-Recorder, Americus, Georgia

Local News

December 9, 2010

Christmas Wonderland

Willet Way display has become a local tradition

AMERICUS — Each year visitors old and new drive to see the site that is known as Willet Way Wonderland in Americus. The site’s main collaborators, neighbors Dwayne Smith and Harriett Williams, work together to prepare the  Wonderland which grows larger by the year.  

“I started it in ’96,” said Smith of creating the Wonderland.

Smith, who is employed with Mediacom, happened to go to Wal-Mart when all of the store’s Christmas decorations had been placed on clearance. Smith found the clearance items had been priced at give-away prices.

“I bought two buggies worth of lights for 20 cents a box,” said Smith. “Every year we add to it and every year we lose something because stuff deteriorates.”

Williams, who is senior records clerk of Americus Fire and Emergency Services Station 1, moved to Willet Way in 1998. From that year onward, Williams and Smith started working on the Wonderland as part of a more collaborative effort.

Willet Way Wonderland, which is named after the street where it is located, originated in one front yard. Now the scene spans mainly across four consecutive front yards and consists of everything from inflatable and mobile decorations, lights, candy canes, Santas, penguins, polar bears, snowmen, reindeer and holiday greetings. Also, throughout much of its existence the site has featured visits from Santa Claus.

Every year the Wonderland set up begins during the middle of October and is finished by Thanksgiving, a  process which takes about five or six weeks to complete. Smith and Williams handle most of the work in preparing the site for Christmas, but they have also received some help in setting up the decorations.

“Kappa Sigma fraternity came and helped set up this year," said Williams.

Also, Boy Scout Troop 26 usually helps take the decorations out of storage and helps set them around the site. This work is counted as part of their community service work.

“We have friends help, too,” added Williams. “Some friends come over with kids and give help.”

The total cost of having Willet Way Wonderland averages around $800 a year, and collected donations help pay the annual expenses of the site.  

“For the most part donations pay for the electricity bill, but Santa pays for the bill,” said Smith.

The Wonderland has received as many as 300 visitors a night. According to Williams, this number only counts the people who actually walk up to visit the site.

“That’s not counting the people who drive by,” said Williams.

“He gives about 120 canes a night,” said Smith of the visitors that Santa receives each night. “Sunday nights are really crowded nights right after church.”

 At night, Santa sits near the side of the road in a special seat, which is set underneath an arch of lights. From this seat, he accepts visitors and lets everyone take pictures with him. Santa also asks the visitors what they want for Christmas and gives candy canes to each person he meets.

According to Smith, Santa also will walk onto retirement home buses to give candy canes to each  person on the bus.  

“Every retirement home person gets a candy cane,” said Smith.  

“We feature music, which a lot of people don’t,” said Williams while showing pictures of the Wonderland from past years.

Another personal touch that the Wonderland offers is the fact that not all of the decorations are bought from the store. Some of them are created by Smith and Williams. For example, Smith hand-built a church to be used in the decorations, and he and Williams helped create the throne where Santa sits.

Since its creation in the late ’90s, the Wonderland has grown and has invited participation from other residents in the neighborhood. As Smith pointed out, a Sri Lankan family from across the street have light decorations in their yard this year. It is the first time that the family has decorated their yard with lights for Christmas.

The Wonderland has had its share of people sneaking around, too, in the past years. Some people have stolen items, tampered with lighting and have even played pranks in neighboring yards.

At one point the site offered a donation container called the “Wishing Well,” which was openly placed outside for visitors to donate to Wonderland when it was not in operation. Some trespassers attempted to take money from the Wishing Well while no one had been nearby to guard it, and this incident put an end to displaying the donation container late at night. The Wishing Well is still used, but it is taken inside toward the end of the night.

Williams said that police have been helping the site by patrolling the neighborhood and keeping an eye out for any trouble, so this has discouraged criminal activity in the area.

Despite these set-backs, however, Willet Way Wonderland continues every year and many visitors  continue to visit the location.

“Seeing the kids act like that is just great,” said Williams after a toddler squealed with excitement at the sight of Santa. “Sometimes they will run to him.”

Smith said that he enjoys seeing all of the families coming through the area to visit the site. For some, it has  become a family tradition to visit the site each year.

“Everyone is encouraged to bring their own cameras and take pictures with Santa and the decorations,” said Williams.

Willet Way Wonderland is open every night, weather permitting, from 6-8:30 p.m., on Willet Way, Americus.

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