Under the Sun

Under the Sun: A New Yorker Lights Up Phoenix Nights

Simon Kreisberger believes Symphony of Lights is the world's largest animated holiday show.
Simon Kreisberger believes Symphony of Lights is the world's largest animated holiday show. Robrt L. Pela

Editor's note: Robrt L. Pela writes about the people and places that define the Phoenix area

“During the day, it’s the ugliest thing on the planet,” said Simon Kreisberger on a recent chilly Monday morning. “At night, it’s the most beautiful place in the world.”

He was talking about Illumination: Symphony of Light, a giant, driveable holiday amusement that had been on his mind for a decade before he finally built it. At night, when it’s all lit up, fans of twinkly lights and Christmas music can drive through Illumination, where giant Frosties flash and colossal Santas flicker and glow to synchronized music piped directly into their car radios.

Billed as “a family holiday driving experience with synchronized Christmas lights,” Illumination is, Kreisberger said, the world's largest animated holiday show. To prove this, he applied for a listing in the Guinness Book of World Records.

This isn’t just a bunch of lights plugged into an extension cord, he said. “Anybody can do that. We wanted people immersed in a Christmas environment.”

Kreisberger is a native New Yorker who worked for philanthropist and politician Michael Bloomberg before moving here 13 years ago. He’d gone to Arizona State University in the 1990s, and always meant to come back.

He said he liked to bring things to the Valley that weren’t here before.

“In Manhattan, I saw all these kids on Park Avenue with nothing to do in the winter,” he explained. “I got this idea for an indoor play place.”

In 2004, Kreisberger said, it was too expensive to do anything in New York. “The next best place was Phoenix,” because it was sometimes too hot here in the summer for kids to play outside. “So I opened The Play Factory right next to an outlet mall. It was a home run from day one.”

Kreisberger sold The Play Factory earlier this year to make room for his new dream. “This is my day job,” he said of the pair of Illumination sites — one in the north Valley, the other in Tempe — he now operates. “We joke that it’s a seasonal business, but it’s eight days a week, 25 hours a day. We’ve begun our plans for next year. We go big or we go home. We do it right or we don’t do it at all.”

If Kreisberger spoke in aphorisms, it was because his creation required big phrases. “We have the largest matrix TV screen on the planet,” he said, and waved a hand at the vacant, un-illuminated lot. “It’s 230 feet long and 10  feet high. We have a 100-foot nativity scene. At our Tempe location, we have Santa’s Portal, a 500-foot-long sonic tunnel inspired by things we saw at Burning Man. We have just over 1.7 million pixel lights.”

For years, Kreisberger pitched investors on his holiday idea inspired by the light shows of New York’s Ocean Parkway. No one could grasp the glittery scale he wanted to achieve. His business partner, a real estate broker, was different. “He said, ‘I’ve got 19 acres up on Black Canyon Highway,’” Kreisberger recalled. “He said, ‘Let’s do it.’”

Kreisberger hired men who design lighting for Coachella and Burning Man and the stage extravaganzas of Taylor Swift. He told them about his vision, and they all said, “Let’s go bigger!” Eighteen months later, Kreisberger and company had the world’s grandest light show.

“I found the guy who made 20-foot-high Christmas lighted balls, the people who made lighted tunnels, the guys who could write the programs to run everything. Even they were blown away. They kept saying, ‘This shouldn’t work, but it does.’”

This year, Kreisberger added an interactive selfie camera that flashes a customer’s face on a giant screen, as well as something he called Christmas Car-aoke, a competitive video contest that hands out weekly prizes like a season pass to Illumination. “Drive-through light shows have been done before,” Kreisberger said. “But not at this level.”

That first year, Kreisberger admitted, there was minimal marketing. He and his staff were too busy building an experience to properly sell it. Yet within weeks there were cars full of gawkers backed up for blocks. Proceeds from the 30-buck-a-carload price benefit a children’s hospital and a food bank, among other charities. Illumination busses in sick kids with mobility issues, free of charge.

This year, the north Phoenix location has added a 360-linear-foot inflatable Christmas-themed obstacle course, the largest on the planet, and a “boulevard marketplace” based on Manhattan’s Bryant Park, with selfie stations, retail, and a Santa-centric face-painting booth. “Why didn’t Phoenix already have all this?” Kreisberger hollered in the direction of a deflated, off-hours Rudolph. “There’s 5 million people here!”

Kreisberger expected about a million of those people to drive through his parks this season. Next year, he plans to relocate the Phoenix site. “We’ve outgrown this space. We need more parking, more electric, more water. These are great problems to have.”

He had an idea why people are drawn to giant dioramas made of sparkly, flashing lights. “It’s because we’re all just big kids inside,” he offered. “I am. When something like a love of Christmas lights is sparked in us, it never leaves us.”

Kreisberger shrugged when a recent visitor to the Tempe Illumination pointed out that Kriesberger is a Jew, so what’s with his love of Christmas?

“Then let’s call this a festival of lights,” he told the man. “It doesn’t matter what your religion is. We all come together this time of year. And I got what I wanted — to see faces lit up. Literally lit up!”

Illumination: Symphony of Light: Diablo Stadium in Tempe and I-17 and Jomax Road in north Phoenix. Sunday to  Thursday 6 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday and holidays, 6 to 11 p.m. For prices, go to worldofillumination.com.
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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela