Mark Zembruski's holiday-lighting hobby is a cheerful obsession — and it draws happy gawkers by the carload
Mark Zembruski is a self-professed "light geek" who calls his home's holiday light display "Woodinville Wonderland." The 74,678 lights and a 40-minute synchronized light show with FM radio broadcast draws happy gawkers by the carload.
Seattle Times staff reporter
The Zembruski home is at 23620 N.E. 183rd St., Woodinville (three miles west of Duvall, about a 45-minute drive east of Seattle).
Take Highway 520 east until it ends and turns into Avondale Road Northeast. Turn right onto Northeast Novelty Hill Road, left onto West Snoqualmie Valley Road Northeast, left onto Northeast Woodinville Duvall Road, right onto 236th Place Northeast, then left onto 236th Avenue Northeast. Continue to the corner of 183rd Street.
The light show runs 5-10:30 p.m. Sundays-Thursdays and 5-11:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Music plays from stereo speakers, but if you are in your vehicle, tune to 101.9 FM to hear the 40-minute synchronized light show.
Mark Zembruski will often be out front handing out candy canes and greeting visitors. He has a fact sheet visitors can pick up that answers many questions about the computerized light show. He invites visitors to feel free to walk all the way up to his front porch. More details: www.woodinvillewonderland.com.
A newly released book, "Tinsel: A Search for America's Christmas Present," by Hank Stuever (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), discusses in detail these types of decorated houses and light shows. The book has become popular with light geeks.
But is it green? According to the Woodinville Wonderland Web site (of course there is one: www.woodinvillewonderland.com), the lights would draw a fairly hefty 71 amps if everything were constantly on, but the actual use is less because many lights blink. So what about the carbon footprint? Zembruski says about 88 percent of his lights are energy-efficient LEDs.
"We made the decision to migrate to the LED lighting technology five years ago. LEDs use significantly less electricity overall, so we were able to deliver a larger display without having to increase our electric service. ... All our growth that is planned each year is about how we can leverage more of this technology."
For the greater good: Beyond giving enjoyment to many people who see his display, Zembruski also collects cash donations from visitors to benefit Special Olympics Washington.
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Mark Zembruski is the kind of guy who stands in front of his driveway, surveys the 74,678 Christmas lights on and around his house and still ponders whether his dolphin display "could use another string of lights."
"Woodinville Wonderland," better known as his house for the other 11 months, has become one of the area's top Christmas attractions. A tradition like taking your kids to sit on Santa's lap at the mall. Or watching the burning Yule Log on public television.
For the last six years, lines of SUVs, minivans and Camrys have pulled up along the side of his street. Couples with hot chocolate in hand and eyes glued to a Disney-like world Zembruski has created: two 20-minute choreographed light shows featuring all those lights, dancing on cue to Christmas classics and the Coke commercial song. About eight miles of extension cords and light strings.
What do they see?
• Santa atop the chimney on a Harley made out of wire frame wrapped with lights.
• Giant cedar trunks tied in candy-cane red and white lights.
• A 7,270-light Christmas tree, glowing in red, white, blue and green.
• A 7 ½-foot Bethlehem-style star on top of the two-story house.
• Snowflake-shaped lights that fade to look like it's snowing down on the house.
• A candy-cane lane.
• A lit peacock.
• A front yard filled with Frosty, angels, reindeers and trains.
• A yard blanketed with fading blue lights to mimic water moving downstream.
And don't miss Elfis
Of course, you need an emcee to make sense of it all. So an Elvis Presley elf, "Elfis," narrates with Rudolph, their mouths blinking on cue to dialogue blaring out of speakers, like some opening monologue of an old Johnny Carson "Tonight Show."
Kids are in awe. Heck, parents, too. Even Marti Caspers gawks, and she lives across the street and has witnessed this spectacle hundreds of times, six years running.
Every time she thinks Zembruski is done, she looks out her front window and sees him adding things. Such as two 8-foot toy soldiers. Some displays that conjure Disney's "It's A Small World." His new "Peanuts" Nativity scene with Charlie Brown and gang.
She put up some Christmas lights on her lawn. "I think when they look at ours, they can rest their eyes after looking at Mark's," Caspers quipped.
Zembruski, 49, who designs circuit boards for a living, is a Southern California transplant who built a house three miles west of Duvall. He lives with his wife and two stepsons.
Six Christmases ago, his mother from Los Angeles and aunt from Nova Scotia visited. He wanted to do something "a little special" for them.
That something became Woodinville Wonderland. "I love the expression on people's faces," he said.
A light geek
Last December, with the snowstorm, he didn't get many visitors, but he realized he wasn't overly disappointed — he just loved planning it and making it happen. He's a "light geek, a techie" — there, he said it, and he's fine with that description. And he doesn't mind that this hobby has cost him "tens of thousands of dollars."
It's a year-round venture for Zembruski. Ordering lights in February. Turning his three-car garage into his shop to weld wire-frame elves and other characters during the summer.
There are thousands of light geeks around the country, usually men, often with electrical-engineering backgrounds. Online forums abound, on topics such as how to make wire-frame Santas and whether to use C7 or C9 lights.
Some 30 or so light geeks in Western Washington regularly meet at a peer's home in Olympia to share display ideas for Christmas — in April.
Carson Williams of Ohio, an electrical engineer (surprise!), is often credited with spreading this sort of spectacle when he programmed 25,000 lights to blink to Trans-Siberian Orchestra's "Wizards in Winter" five years ago. He wasn't the first, but he got the most publicity.
Light geeks program Christmas lights by using software such as Light-O-Rama, which Zembruski uses, to synchronize lights to music. They transmit Christmas songs on a FM radio frequency. Just pull up to the house, tune the car radio — in Zembruski's show, to 101.9 FM — and watch, like a drive in movie.
Two years ago, hundreds visited on Christmas Eve, Zembruski said; cars parked along the road and on a dead-end street, a traffic jam that looked like the 520 bridge during rush hour.
To reduce congestion now, he tries to get folks out of their cars. You have to walk to get a view of the front of the house now. Those in cars can only watch from the side of his house.
His most popular display: an interior projector beaming Santa onto a white screen covering a window of the house. From the outside, it appears as if Santa is working in front of the window and saying "ho, ho, ho" to the crowd.
Toddlers believe Santa is waving at them. They gawk until their parents pull them away.
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