Lakewood’s Camp Christmas is a winter wonderland
Each of Colorado’s hugely popular and outsized vacation extravagance seems to come with its own particular adjective in 2021.
Some are “elegant,” like the one in the Denver Botanical Gardens, where string lights make orderly paths through twinkling trees and ponds. Others are âadventurous,â like the 80-acre exhibit at the Denver Zoo, where there are plenty of winks, but also a few Amur tigers and Bactrian camels in the show.
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But Camp Christmas at Heritage Lakewood Belmar Park stands out with the most beguiling adjective of all. It is “artistic”. That is, it looks like a work of art and not just a timely, bloated Christmas blast meant to generate a big box office for a nonprofit.
Although to be honest Camp Christmas is also these things. The outdoor attraction has over 250,000 light bulbs for your brain, and more Santas, reindeer and Christmas trees than you really need. It also raises funds for its sponsor, the Denver Center for the Performing Arts and its experimental production company Off-Center.
Yet Camp Christmas manages to present itself as designed and handcrafted, as if it had been assembled from an artist’s imagination, rather than installed by a team of installations. No surprise, that’s exactly the case; the immersive attraction is the brainchild of Lonnie Hanzon, who for decades has been creating fabulous, convoluted works of art for Denver audiences.
Hanzon is the ‘director’ of this camp, and he aims to infuse it with more than the cheerful glow that covers its surface and clearly delights the children who walk the pitch. It has “depth”, and that’s its other special adjective.
Here is an example. Visitors are greeted at the gate of the camp by a cheerful elf, who checks their tickets and sends them on their merry way. Welcome to the magical Christmas of your dreams.
But a few steps away, after passing the hot chocolate stand and a machine that appears to make sugar candies, they encounter an “emotional baggage check,” featuring a stack of suitcases, each labeled as “jealousy,” regret. , ââ Shame âandâ betrayal. This is where the Christmas miracle gives way to the reality of awkward family dinners and office parties. It’s not brutal, it’s actually fun, even if it keeps this case from turning into a cheesy Hallmark movie.
Here is another one. In many ways, the camp is closely tied to tradition. One of its highlights is an incredibly large tree, placed in an old barn, which is adorned with thousands of light bulbs spanning 140 years of “original Edison LED bulb”. The message is clear: Christmas is old fashioned and everlasting.
But there’s also an oversized beauty salon meant to honor the chic drag queen. It features lanky models in dizzying wigs made from candy canes and cupcakes and entire mountain villages. This message is also clear: Christmas is inclusive and open-minded enough to consider more contemporary ideas like sexual and gender fluidity.
And it does it all with a family twist, which accepts and promotes the version of Christmas you need in 2021.
In nostalgia? There’s a real working carousel on-site and rides on his fancy ponies are included in admission. There is a âwinter wish treeâ where kids, parents and newbies can write down a vacation dream and share it with the entire camp community. There is an entire room that serves as a mini-museum retracing the history of the Winter Solstice celebrations 5,000 years ago. The Romans wrapped their famous columns in vines, the English finally added the wassail. And so on.
More interested in the camper version of Camp Christmas? Well, there’s a hot pink indoor cocktail bar with themed drinks. There are lots and lots of mirror balls, along with some fantastic standalone artwork and assorted steam-punk gadgets.
There’s also Hanzon himself, whose personality lingers over everything in a larger-than-life way. He’s the voice of Camp Christmas – literally, he provides the chatter for the QR code activated audio guide that explains every facet of the attraction – and also the soul of it. Camp Christmas reflects its own holiday tastes.
Hanzon loves to wrap packages, so there’s a room full of boxes and boxes of wrapped gifts. It’s not about the gifts inside, Hanzon explains on audio. It’s about the joy of paper, tape and pretty ribbons – and giving
He also likes gingerbread. So it’s easy to find him there, on the spot, cooking multiple casseroles in his pop-up studio.
Christmas camp is personal like that. And the location makes it feel like it’s local. The Town of Lakewood uses the open space as a place to store historic buildings that would otherwise be demolished. He simply identifies the important structures – a farm, a former school, a gas station – and moves them, brick by brick, plank by plank, around the park to keep them safe. Hanzon has worked closely with city historians to significantly integrate holiday cheer into fragile structures without damaging their character.
In that sense, Camp Christmas looks like a gift in itself, from Lakewood to its neighbors, from eccentric Lonnie Hanzon to all of Colorado. It’s wacky and warm, gooey but sophisticated, retro and very real.
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