Annual Holiday Festival of Lights is all about the people
By Holly Fisher
Ryan Smith might be the maintenance supervisor for the James Island County Park but he’s really in the people business. And it takes a lot of people to keep all aspects of the park running smoothly, especially during the annual Holiday Festival of Lights.
Smith oversees a full-time staff of 15 people with additional part-time staff joining the ranks for the busy summer season. Then, more than 180 staff members across the Charleston County Parks system join forces during the holiday season to bring the lights festival to life.
“The vast majority of the time I’m talking with people,” Smith said. “I’m listening and figuring out whatever people are trying to accomplish.”
It’s a year-round effort. Teams gather in January to assess the previous year and kick off plans for the coming holiday season.
“We see that as our beginning point,” Smith said. “We talk about major challenges, what went well and what didn’t go well. Those planning meetings happen in January and never really stop. They involve marketing, food services, IT… it’s a big operation.”
Creativity on Display
At the beginning of August, teams begin to assemble the lights displays. It takes six to eight weeks to create one display and there are 750 displays.
Some of the displays have become iconic parts of the festival, including a model of the Ravenel Bridge from Charleston to Mt. Pleasant, and it stands 30 feet tall and is roughly the length of a football field. A number of Lowcountry landmarks are part of the festival: Fort Sumter, Rainbow Row, the USS Yorktown and St. Michael’s Church.
These beloved displays plus the themed areas of Sea Land, Dinosaur Land, Candy Land, and Toy Land are familiar favorites. But Smith said the team makes just enough changes each year to keep it fresh and interesting.
Some of that comes in the form of technology. The earliest displays were powered by incandescent bulbs. Now they use LEDs and are even moving toward using RGB LED bulbs that offer an infinite combination of colors.
“People think (the festival) is the same, but if you look at it year after year, it’s really not the same,” Smith said. “We decorate the same buildings, but the different colors of lights keep it looking fresh. And there are different decorations. They’re subtle changes, but if it were exactly the same, people wouldn’t want to come back. It’s just different enough that people want to come back year after year.”
That level of detail requires continual planning and a high level of dedication—which means it all comes back to the people.
The Power of Relationships
In fact, it’s relationships that Smith credits for his career path and journey to the park in the first place. After graduating from Summerville High School in 1998, Smith took a job at the then-abandoned Charleston Naval Shipyard. It was a grounds maintenance job that came through a family friend.
After a year in college, Smith took a break. He landed a part-time summer job with Charleston County Parks.
“I thought, 'I'll give it a summer and then go back to school in the fall,'" he said.
But the maintenance supervisor at the time, Rich Raab, kept Smith on into the fall. That relationship allowed Smith to join the parks staff full time. He held various positions in the maintenance division over the years before taking on the maintenance supervisor role at James Island.
“I’ve always loved James Island County Park,” he said. “This park offers the broadest scale of services and challenges. If the agency’s parks were a naval fleet, we’d be the aircraft carrier. There’s a lot going on here with the campground, water park and light show.”
Smith’s work affords him plenty of time outside, which he loves. Growing up, he was an athlete and an Eagle Scout so spending time outdoors is his passion. He sort of fell into the maintenance field, but discovered how much he liked it.
To further his industry knowledge, Smith studied computer-aided design and industrial maintenance at Trident Technical College. And while those tools and training are important, Smith comes back around to the people.
It’s the soft skills ingrained in employees that truly matter. If you know how to communicate, have the right attitude and are coachable, you can learn the technical skills.
“I have a great team of people who care about what they’re doing and it shows,” he said. “I think our customers experience that.”
Building on Tradition
The maintenance team at James Island is behind the scenes making magic. “We couldn’t do what we do without the maintenance staff,” Smith said. “The first experience people have as customers is, ‘Look at how nice this place is.’”
That dedication is evident throughout the Holiday Festival of Lights – from cleaning bathrooms and stocking retail shelves to making the 25,000 hot cocoas sold at the festival each year. And it’s what draws thousands of visitors.
For Smith, the tradition of the festival is what he loves. “As somebody who has lived here the majority of my life, my favorite part is the tradition of it. We offer a unique experience for the residents of Charleston County.”
Wearing his Charleston County Parks branded shirt means people often ask him about the Holiday Festival of Lights.
“I get to be part of that tradition,” Smith said. “People don’t ask me what park I work in. People ask, ‘Do you work with the lights?’ Everywhere I go, people ask, ‘Do you work with the lights?’ To me, that says something.”
Maintenance supervisor at James Island County Park
A wife who he met while working at James Island County Park and 18-year-old son
Fort Worth, TX but moved to Summerville when he was 13 years old.
Travel, concerts, collecting vinyl records. Officiating Division 1 college football games
Holiday Festival of Lights
Nov. 10 to Dec. 31
James Island County Park
Festival Fun Facts
» Though organizers have lost count, it is estimated that there are over 2 million lights shining bright at the festival.
» Throughout its 34-year span, more than 6 million people have toured the Holiday Festival of Lights.
» An estimated 25,000 hot cocoas and 19,000 marshmallow sticks are sold on the festival grounds each year.
» The festival trains take about 40,000 guests through the park woods and around the lake each year.
» The carousel whirls about 30,000 riders around each year.