If they didn't know better, spectators at Swan Lake-Iris Gardens on Friday could have mistaken the edge-of-their-seats screeches sounding from children, the group-chanted countdown and the dazzling display of more than one million twinkles in trees as a scene at Disney World.
The 30th year of Sumter's Fantasy of Lights kicked off December with a ceremony from high school students and dignitaries before attendees chimed in for the grand turn-on of displays throughout the picnic area, parking lot and entrance way of the gardens that will be open to the public nightly throughout the month.
"We have two new characters this year, but we like to not tell people and surprise them to see if they can guess which ones are the new ones," said Shelley Kile, communications and tourism director for the city, which organizes the event and is responsible for the display. "I cannot get over the looks on their faces when they come on."
Visitors don't even have to get out of their cars to see the majority of the display. Ranging from wrapped trees to cartoon characters along the garden fences to a short, wide tree in the front that is draped with neon blue lights - LED bulbs are used throughout the display - like a willow that kids can run under, visitors can catch a glimpse of most of the million lights from a drive-through of the parking lot.
Kile said it gives her that "warm and fuzzy" holiday feeling.
After emcee Derek Burress introduced Lakewood High School's AFROTC to post the colors, John F. Kennedy to sing the national anthem and the Rev. Joseph James to lead the invocation, Crestwood High School's chorus performed a handful of melodies before Sumter Mayor Pro Tem Thomas J. Lowery introduced Shaw Air Force Base 20th Fighter Wing Commander Col. Daniel T. Lasica to lead the countdown, big red button-style, to the lights being turned on all at once.
The tradition spans more than the 30 years the city has held the official get-together for the lights. This year marked the 38th year the Evening Pilot Club of Sumter has put up a floating Christmas tree in the lake.
Sarah and Adam Evans attended the event for the first time and took their 10-month-old daughter and 2-year-old daughter, Chloe.
Sarah Evans said they were looking forward to visiting Santa in "Santa's Village," where kids can send letters to the North Pole, sit on Santa's lap and enjoy live entertainment.
Refreshments on sale at the village will benefit the Pilot Club.
Greg McFadden and Kaneesha Servance attended for the second year in a row and said the gingerbread house display was a favorite of their daughters, Azaria, 6, and Akira, 3.
McFadden, as he and his family walked along the character display, summed the lights and event up in a way organizers can hope for: "It makes the kids happy."