Ellie Somers

Photography Editor

ellie somers

As a lover of all things Christmas, I go on a personal tacky light tour every year.  This self-guided tour is something I spend days planning and look forward to even before the holiday season.

This year, I decided to expand my tacky light horizons.  I spent an entire weekend driving around with my friends, scouting out the best displays.  I, of course, went to all the classic Richmond Christmas houses, but I also visited some displays that I had never seen before.  I visited a total of 12 destinations, some that were free and some that cost admission, and picked my favorite three free and three costly displays.


There’s almost nothing better than free entertainment, and if you’re looking to save your money for presents rather than spend it on lights, this is the tacky light list for you.

3) 8720 River Road

RATING: 7/10

My third favorite free tacky light spot is the drive-thru house on River Road.  I have never visited this display before, and did not originally intend to add it to my tour.  I drove past it on my way to a friend’s house and decided to take a quick detour and pass through it.  Before I knew it, I had driven through the display a whole five times, and I have since returned twice.  I always appreciate a light display that is set to music, and this house has just that and more.  Not only do the trees blink along to everyone’s favorite classic Christmas songs, including Mariah Carey’s All I Want for Christmas is You and Carol of the Bells, but the yard is filled with inflatables, decorations, and lights of all different styles.  The display wraps around the entire yard, inside and out of the entrance.  It takes more than one drive through to see everything since it is so elaborate, and every drive through will reveal something that you have yet to notice.  The only thing I wish were different is that people that pull in behind you tend to make you feel rushed to drive through faster, and since the driveway is so short anyways, you feel like you missed out on a lot.  But, I suppose that is just a way to justify driving through one or ten more times.  There are very few light displays in Richmond that light up to music, and that is why I think this house is so special.

River Road Lights (PC Ellie Somers)
River Road drive way display. Photo: Ellie Somers

2) 9215 Venetian Way

RATING: 9/10

My second favorite free tacky light spot is the house on the lake, right off of Maybeury Drive.  This is a display that I have grown up visiting every year, since it is located right down the street from my cousin’s house.  It is a completely different and classier approach to tacky lights, and I think that is exactly what makes it unique.  With no inflatables or figurines in sight, it is simply just a display of tastefully placed lights of all different colors.  Although you cannot get close to the house since the display is in a backyard that sits on a lake, the reflection of the lights in the water is something truly stunning.  But above all else, my favorite decoration is the lit-up Christmas tree placed so perfectly on the water.  I wish the display were more accessible, since it is on Maybeury which can be a busy cut-through road, making it difficult to stop, get out of the car, and spend time admiring the lights.  It is more of a drive by slowly with your hazards on kind of display, but perhaps that adds the magic of it all.  To me, this house is a classic, consistent, and essential stop for any tacky light tour.

Maybeury lights (PC Lucy Deignan)
View across the water of 9215 Venetian Way.  Photo: Lucy Deignan

1)  9604 and 9606 Asbury Court

RATING: 10/10

My first (and all time) favorite tacky light spot are the famous Phifer Christmas Houses.  If you do not know these houses by name, they are the houses where tacky light busses and limousines line up and crowd the neighborhood every night starting on Thanksgiving.  If that doesn’t describe the popularity of these houses I don’t know what does.  I have also grown up visiting these houses every year, as most locals do, and have loved to see it grow and change over the years.  The display has been running for over 40 years, but has grown exponentially since the family’s son purchased the house next door 10 years ago and began to contribute the tradition.  There is something so special about the controlled chaos of the lights, and the way that everything on display is so different yet works so well as a collective.  From the room full of creepy dolls and the various Santa mannequins, to the perfectly wrapped trees and the famous Grinch on the roof, this house never disappoints.  Other special touches include the hot chocolate that the family sells from the driveway and the little black spotted cat that can sometimes be seen walking around the display.  When I think of Christmas, this house is one of the first things I think of, and for that reason it is an absolute must-see display for your tacky light tour.

Phifer Chrismas House Lights (PC Lauren Tull)
Asbury Court light display. Photo: Lauren Tull


If you are feeling a little more festive this year and are up for a bit of a drive and an admission cost, these next few destinations could be perfect for you.

3) Lewis Ginter Gardenfest of Lights

RATING: 7/10

My third favorite tacky light destination that costs admission is the Lewis Ginter Gardenfest of Lights.  Located in Richmond, this display is not too far of a drive.  This is another light show that I have never seen before, but was excited to add to my tour.  I love visiting Lewis Ginter during the spring and summer, so I figured adding lights would make it even more special; and I was 100% right.  With an admission price of $13 for non-members and $7 for members, this is one of the cheaper entry costing displays in the area.  Inside, the gardens are divided up into different sections, each with a different color or style of lights.  The more forested areas had trees wrapped of different colors, including purple, blue, pink, and green, and the other more open areas were filled with decorations and storytelling displays.  Some of these storytelling displays included Hansel and Gretel, the Giving Tree, the Ugly Duckling, and much more.  One of my personal favorite parts of the gardens was the children’s section, where you can go up in the treehouse and see the lights from above.  It was also one of the most decorated parts of the display, and included a warming fire station to keep you cozy on cold nights.  The Gardenfest of Lights can get pretty crowded, especially on weekends right when it opens at 5:00, because that is when most families go.  However, the longer it is open, the less crowded it gets.  One of the only things I felt was missing from the display was music, but since Lewis Ginter does not have speakers set up throughout the year, it makes sense that they don’t add this feature.  Overall, I think the lights were tastefully displayed in a fun and festive manor, and can be enjoyed by all.

COST: $13.00 for non-members, $7 for members

ADDRESS: 1800 Lakeside Ave

OTHER INFO: Closes on January 8th, Open from 5:00-10:00 nightly

Lewis Ginter (PC Ellie Somers)
Lewis Ginter Gardenfest of Lights display. Photo: Ellie Somers

2) Busch Gardens Christmas Town

RATING: 8/10

My second favorite tacky light destination that costs admission is Busch Gardens Christmas Town in Williamsburg.  Although the park is about an hour and 15 minutes away from Richmond, in my opinion it is well worth the drive.  Not only is the park filled with gorgeous lights and decorations, but most rides are still running, making it the best of both worlds: Christmas and amusement parks.  However, the best of both worlds comes with an admission cost anywhere from $25 to $45, depending on which day you go (weekdays are cheaper, Fridays and weekends are more expensive).  I happened to go to the park on opening day, November 24th, which I was unaware was opening day, so I was in for quite the wait when I got there.  My friends and I had to park in the overflow lot and wait in line to ride the trolley into the park, but once we finally got in, it was one of the most beautiful displays I had seen.  Every section of the park was decorated differently, each with different colored lights or themes.  Some of my favorite features included fake snow, hot chocolate, and a screening of Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer in an outdoor theater with bean bags and more fake snow.  There are even opportunities to see the lights from above, on the gondola ride or the drop tower, which is redesigned to carry you down gracefully rather than drop you.  Christmas Town truly has something for everyone, and is perfect destination for families or groups of friends.  The only downsides are the cost and the possible wait to get in the park, but I think they are all outweighed by the beauty of the display.

COST: Prices vary by day, $25-$45

ADDRESS: 1 Busch Gardens Blvd, Williamsburg

OTHER INFO: Closes on January 1st, Open from 2:00-10:00 daily

Christmas Town (PC Busch Gardens)
Busch Gardens Christmas Town. Photo: Ellie Somers

1)  Illuminate Light Show

RATING: 9/10

My favorite tacky light destination is the Illuminate Light Show in Doswell.  About a 30-minute drive from Richmond and located right down the street from Kings Dominion at the Meadow Event Park (home of the state fair), the light show celebrated its fourth year running when it opened on November 17th.   I have been meaning to go see this display since the first year it opened, but have never gotten around to it.  This year, I decided I finally needed to see it for myself, and I was glad I did. This drive-thru display is 1.5 miles of lights, all synchronized to music, and the admission cost is $25 per car.  If you go on a friday night or weekend like I did, you are likely to wait in line for anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour to enter the light show, but it is absolutely worth the wait.  The lights are mesmerizing to watch and definitely put me in the holiday spirit.  Some of my favorite features were the light up Santa faces that sing along to the music and the tunnels of lights that change patterns along with the songs.  On first thought I wanted to give it a 12/10 rating, but after some careful consideration and coming down from my Christmas spirit excitement, I decided to lower the rating to a 9/10 because of the odd music selection.  They played songs that ranged from classic Christmas songs to pop renditions of Proud to be an American and Amazing Grace, which were a little random in my opinion.  Despite the weird music and upfront admission price, I would still highly recommend this to anyone and everyone, especially since the entry fee can be split among a car full of friends.

COST: $25 per car

ADDRESS: 13048 Dawn Blvd, Doswell

OTHER INFO: Closes on December 31st, open from 5:30-10:00 nightly

Illuminate Light Show
Illuminate Light Show. Photo:


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