PALM HARBOR — Who would you get if you combined Christmas enthusiasts Clark Griswold from National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation and Vic Frohmeyer, the overbearing head of the neighborhood decorating committee in Christmas with the Kranks? The answer is Denis Phillips — Tampa Bay’s affable meteorologist with a contagious penchant for Christmas.
Phillips has helped transform his Palm Harbor subdivision into a holiday attraction befitting a Hollywood production. When he’s off air on the weekends from ABC affiliate WFTS-Ch. 28 in Tampa, the suspenders-wearing Phillips dons a red blazer with Christmas lights to welcome visitors to the Indian Trails subdivision, bordered by Alderman Road and Omaha Street.
He and his wife, Robyn, and their six children spend hours each Saturday in December spreading Christmas cheer and collecting donations for the Children’s Miracle Network. From 6:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. they sell hot chocolate, cookies and popcorn from their driveway to passersby on foot and in the line of traffic that starts backing up well before dark.
Neighbors help, along with members of Palm Harbor’s Fusion Dance Company who volunteer as runners, taking orders from car windows and delivering whipped cream-topped cups of comfort to drivers and passengers taking in the lights. Everything is a $1. The cookies come from the Doubletree Hotel chain, known for their warm cookies to welcome guests.
Phillips’ next-door neighbor Carl Elvers donated $300 for the hot chocolate this year. He said his favorite part of the holiday is watching the Phillips family do the decorating. Family members start hanging lights and hoisting displays right after Thanksgiving and work three weeks to finish the house. They have more than 45 strands of lights strung in 32 separate zones. “The back of the house is lit, too," said Phillips. "You can see it from Alderman Road.”
The colorful blinking lights on the house are synchronized to Christmas music and he streams holiday movies on the belly of the blow-up snowman in the front yard. Frosty-loving Vic Frohmeyer would be proud.
The thousands of strung lights aren’t a strain on his electric bill.
“Our bill is cheaper in December than it is in the summertime because they are LED (Light Emitting Diode) lights and we don’t need our air conditioning all the time,” said Phillips.
Phillips is known for his reassuring weather reports during hurricane season and his “hurricane rules,” particularly Rule #7: “Stop freaking out... until I tell you to. We’re fine.” He has a following of 296,000 on Facebook. Last year, he starting posting photos of his Christmas lights on his social media accounts, inviting readers and viewers to the display.
“I pretty much invited the entire bay area to come see the lights. And I never dreamed the entire bay area would come to see the lights,” said Phillips.
The neighborhood raised nearly $10,000 for the charity last year. Traffic was backed up along Alderman for a mile.
Nearly every home in the neighborhood is decorated to the hilt, but not all of the homeowners appreciate the congestion. A few Scrooges have complained to the homeowner’s association about the traffic and the commotion, Phillips said. One neighbor threatened to call police and warned neighbors they would be in danger if an ambulance needed to get through the traffic.
But the comments on the neighborhood Facebook page have been overwhelmingly in favor of Phillips and his contagious love of Christmas. Neighbors also pointed out the community has been hosting light displays for nearly 30 years, way before the Phillips family moved in.
“We walked down last night and it was so great to see our community out there celebrating with one another,” posted neighbor Kendra Bradley Pilson. “Giving and children pretty much sum up the meaning of Christmas to me.”
Another neighbor, Susan Korabek, has looked forward to the light displays every Christmas for the 22 years she has lived in the community.
“Seeing and hearing children’s excitement is what Christmas is about — the children," she said. "Denis Phillips’ charitable collection is another way to teach children about the meaning of Christmas.”
This year, Phillips also hired three off-duty deputies from the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office to direct traffic and make sure motorists were safe. He will do the same Dec. 21 and on Christmas Eve, if he decides to bring out the hot chocolate that night.
“I probably will,” he allowed.
The display stays up through New Year’s and then Phillips stores the decorations in the garage and the attic. “But this year we might have to add a shed,” he said.
Phillips moved to Indian Trails six years ago.
“We found the house when we were driving around looking at Christmas lights."