Roper Mountain Holiday Lights has been a Christmastime tradition for thousands of families across the Upstate since opening more than 20 years ago. But when the lights go out at the science center this holiday season, it will be for the final time.
Organizers with the Rotary Club of Greenville and Roper Mountain Science Center say the event, which runs from Thanksgiving night to the end of the year, has seen a steady decline in attendance over the years due to increasing competition.
“Holiday Lights was one of the only Christmas shows in the area when it opened. But now there are displays popping up every year,” said Michael Weeks, director of Roper Mountain Science Center. “Our annual attendance has actually declined by more than 30 percent in the past five years. It’s just no longer affordable for us to maintain the displays.”
Holiday Lights began more than two decades ago, when Greenville’s Bob and Amy Olson decided to celebrate Christmas in Charleston and see the James Island County Park Holiday Festival of Lights. Inspired by what they had seen, the couple returned home and started planning their own special holiday event for Upstate residents.
Bob, a member of the Rotary Club of Greenville, along with Amy joined forces with Darrell Harrison, who was then director of Roper Mountain Science Center, to launch an annual display of Christmas lights along a 1.5-mile loop on the mountain.
After nine months of preparation, Holiday Lights opened on Thanksgiving night in 1992 with about a dozen displays, ranging from marching toy soldiers and flying reindeer to skating bears and glowing Christmas trees.
Today’s program has grown to more than 70 light displays, including fan favorites like Candy Cane Lane and Santa’s Sleigh. But none are more iconic than the 97-foot Buck Mickel Star, which stands at the top of the mountain with more than 2,500 lights.
“The star wasn’t added until the second year, but it’s always been one of our more popular displays,” said Beth Padgett, a member of the Rotary Club. “I actually work the entrance every year and meet hundreds of people who stop to see the lights on their way through town just because they notice the star from the interstate.”
Holiday Lights also includes Winter Wonderland, which features lighted walking trails, giant holiday greeting cards created by local schools, a balloon artist, concessions, and nightly visits with Santa at the North Pole Trading Post. Christmas carolers from the GLOW Lyric Theatre also perform on select nights.
Padgett said preparation for Holiday Lights is a “grueling” process that requires hundreds of volunteers from the Rotary Club of Greenville and Roper Mountain Science Center. Volunteers usually begin installing the displays in September, and after the season is over, they won’t finish removing all of the lights until March.
Altogether, it takes about 900 volunteers and 7,000 hours to put up the lights, staff the event, and take down the displays at the end of the season. But it’s become increasingly difficult to find enough volunteers to put the event on, according to Padgett.
“The installation process was much easier when the Lights opened, because we had more volunteers and fewer displays. But now we’re stringing up more than 1 million lights across the mountain every year. That’s just too much for us,” she said. “And we know some people don’t agree with our decision to end the lights, but we honestly felt like this year was probably our last chance to preserve its legacy and end things on a positive note.”
In addition to providing entertainment for thousands of families, Holiday Lights has raised more than $2.5 million for science education and community service programs over the last 26 years, according to Padgett. Proceeds from the event are divided between the Rotary Club of Greenville and Roper Mountain Science Center Association.
The Rotary Club uses the funds to provide college scholarships, community grants, and educational programs, including adult literacy training and financial counseling. The club also supports the Greenville County School District Teacher of the Year Awards.
Roper Mountain Science Center uses its share of the proceeds to improve facilities and provide care for animals at the Living History Farm, according to Weeks. The center recently used a portion of its proceeds from last year’s program to buy a state-of-the-art Spitz projection system for the T.C. Hooper Planetarium.
“Holiday Lights has not only provided money to our programs but also exposed the science center to thousands of people who may not have known about us. That’s why we’re already working on some holiday programming for next year,” he said. “We’re not exactly sure what that looks like just yet, but it’s definitely going to be something fun and unique.”
Once the current season ends, organizers plan to remove Roper Mountain’s iconic light displays and auction them off. People interested in buying a display can submit their online bid through Jan. 2 at noon, according to Weeks.
He added that the Buck Mickel Star would remain in its signature location at the top of the mountain. It was most recently refurbished by Lockheed Martin’s operations center at the South Carolina Technology and Aviation Center in Greenville.
“Lockheed was kind enough to remove the star last summer and change the bulbs and wires. They also gave it a fresh coat of paint,” Weeks said. “It will remain on the mountain as a nod to Holiday Lights and the impact it’s had on Greenville over the years.”
Roper Mountain Holiday Lights is open every night from 6-10 p.m. through Dec. 30. For more information, visit ropermountainholidaylights.com.
You can go:
What: Roper Mountain Holiday Lights
When: Through Dec. 30. The drive-thru lights display is open every night from 6-10 p.m. Winter Wonderland closes at 9 p.m.
Where: 402 Roper Mountain Road
Cost: $15 per vehicle. Activity vans are $25 and buses are $50. Multi-car passes for three visits are available for $30.