95 foor Christmas tree in shopping mall

Now that's a really big project!

In last month’s PlanetChristmas magazine, I shared some tips on how to get started with a large scale Christmas display at your home. It’s time to follow up with examples of how important planning is in the world of commercial decorating.

Perhaps the most common object associated with the holiday season is the Christmas tree. Add animation and musical synchronization to that tree and you have an incredible crowd pleaser. Many shopping centers realize this and are starting to install giant trees within their venues. Unfortunately, most don’t realize the amount of planning that goes into a successful display. It’s not as easy as ordering a tree, setting it up and plugging it in.

My company has worked on two giant-tree projects this year. Each location offers insights that property owners and managers could learn from when deciding to add one of these iconic symbols of Christmas to their venues.

Galleria Dallas – Dallas, Texas

For the last three seasons, I’ve been responsible for programming the lights and music on the Galleria Dallas Christmas tree. This 95 foot giant is located indoors at the center of an ice skating rink and includes over 225,000 LED lights, 10,000 ornaments and a 10 foot lighted star topper. The tree is one of the largest in the world and the tallest indoor tree in the United States.

Planning for the Galleria Dallas “Illumination Celebration” begins in early August with a meeting between me and representatives from the Galleria where we determine what music the Galleria is going to use for the season. Songs are then sequenced to the lights and another meeting is held to review the final programming.

Christmas tree skeleton
Christmas tree skeleton

The tree has been used for almost 20 years so the staff is very familiar with the assembly. They are able to diagnose problems quickly given their extensive knowledge and experience. From a music and light sequencing standpoint, there is plenty of time to verify that the shows will run correctly.

There is one individual at the Galleria responsible for every aspect of the tree. If anything goes wrong, he is the first person that is called. It is his responsibility to determine who to contact so a problem can be quickly diagnosed and fixed. Dealing with one individual is also helpful when upgrades are being planned. He/she may not understand the world of computerized lighting or the nuances of giant Christmas trees, but he/she knows to coordinate the vendors to make sure any tree changes won’t affect anyone else.

On the second Sunday in November the Galleria closes the rink and installs the giant tree at center ice. This process takes just over three days as each branch is placed on the tree in a very methodical manner. The installers also use a large boom lift to get branches and people to the higher sections of the tree. They label the end of each extension cord connected to the branches with the section location and color, and leave it for me to connect everything at the bottom. It takes me a day to connect the extension cords to the lighting controllers according to the pre-defined template. After final testing of the programming and sign-off by the customer, the tree is officially turned on for the entire Christmas season.

Galleria Dallas is located at 13350 Dallas Parkway, Dallas, Texas 75240. The Illumination Celebration runs daily at Noon, 2, 4, 6 and 8:00 p.m. (no 8 p.m. show on Sundays.) Starting the day after Thanksgiving, and each Saturday until Christmas, the Galleria hosts an ice skating show featuring selected U.S. National Ice Skating champions and 2010 Olympic hopefuls. During the show, ‘Missile Toes’, Galleria’s own ice skating Santa Claus, will count down with the audience to help light the tree.

Green Valley Ranch Christmas Tree
Green Valley Ranch Christmas Tree

This year the District at Green Valley Ranch lifestyle retail center in Nevada added a 50 foot outdoor tree with 14,400 computer controlled LEDs dancing to music. The company that sold them the tree wasn’t able to send anyone on-site to help with the installation. Further adding to the challenge was no useful work had been done to sequence the lights on the tree to any music appropriate for the venue.

These giant trees don’t come with instruction manuals and it ended up being delivered much later than expected giving the novice installers very little time to figure out how the tree was to be assembled. What was expected to take three days took five. The basic tree wasn’t together until late Tuesday, November 24th. Since the mall was already advertising on November 27 their incredible new Christmas tree would magically dance to holiday music, time was quickly running out.

The large number of people involved in the setup caused never ending problems at the last minute, many of which could have been resolved months earlier with proper planning. Instead, multiple vendors were franticly racing to complete everything for the reveal. The stress level was incredibly high and the mall owners were making sure everyone was suffering major heartburn.

The electrical contractors were given incorrect information about the load requirements needed for the tree and lighting controllers. As a result two electricians worked until 11pm after the basic tree was assembled redoing much of their work.

My company was contacted to assist with the music and light sequencing of the tree. One vendor spoke to another and soon I was in talks with multiple vendors, answering the same questions asked by others working on the project. I ended up making an unscheduled trip to Las Vegas to be on-site and help everyone work towards a successful completion. We pulled it off and the tree lighting was a success but it was far more painful than it needed to be in order to get there.

What could have been done differently with this installation? It would have been beneficial to have someone with experience on rolling out major Christmas displays acting as a project manager, or acting as a consultant to a full time project manager hired by the property owner. Working through one person would have reduced the mis-information and saved many hours of work and rework.
Large Christmas displays are similar to other major projects that businesses take on; you need an experienced project manager to prioritize and coordinate the various sub-tasks in order for the entire project to be completed on-time and within budget. Unfortunately, many times these giant Christmas displays are left to a property manager or on-site general contractor that has no understanding about Christmas decorations. I can’t emphasize enough bringing in someone with experience at the very beginning of the project to make sure everything is successful.

Plan for these big displays can never start too soon. If you have lighting needs for 2010, start thinking about it in January. Bringing in expert assistance now will save considerable money in the long run and prevent plenty of heartburn before your big reveal in November.

The District at Green Valley Ranch is located at 2240 Village Walk Drive in Henderson, Nevada, 89052. The tree performs each evening with a show every ten minutes, Sunday through Thursday 5:00-9:00pm and Friday through Saturday 5:00-10:00pm

About the author: Don Teague is the owner of Synchronized Christmas, Inc., which provides design, consultation and programming services for residential, commercial and municipal displays featuring synchronized Christmas lights.


This article was included in the December 2009 issue of PlanetChristmas Magazine.

By Don Teague

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