Writer Joseph J. Airdo // Photography Courtesy of the Anthem Holiday Light Cruise Team
One night each December, the streets of Anthem light up with a procession of festively decorated off-road vehicles that, traveling along a 25-mile route, weave in and out of neighborhoods, spreading holiday spirit throughout the entire community.
Paving the way for Santa’s reindeer-powered sleigh, the holiday light cruise is to Anthem what Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is to New York City. However, its original organizers never intended for the excursion to be anywhere near the seasonal spectacle that it has become.
The first holiday light cruise through Anthem took place seven years ago as a way for local Jeep and utility terrain vehicle enthusiasts to gather together and take a wintertime tour of the community’s most creatively decorated homes. It was not long until the sightseers became the sight themselves.
“It successfully grew over its first couple of years,” says David Coleman, who a few years ago took the reigns of the annual Christmas caravan. “It has gotten bigger and bigger each year and has become an extremely large event. We had more than 300 vehicles last year. Someone told me that the line was three-and-a-half miles long.”
In fact, it has gotten so big that Coleman has had to turn away many individuals who want to join the cruise, limiting participation to Jeeps and UTVs.
“Everybody wants to drive in it — and I would love for everybody to do so — but that is, logistically, just not possible,” Coleman says. “As it stands, it is nearly 9 p.m. by the time we get to the last neighborhood. And I want to get through as many neighborhoods as we possibly can.”
He has also had to work closely with the Arizona Department of Public Safety, who this year will assist in ensuring a safe and steady flow from the cruise’s starting point at Outlets at Anthem to the neighborhoods on the east side of I-17.
“Setting up something like this is not for the faint of heart,” Coleman says. “It is quite the undertaking. I could not do it without the countless people who help me pull it off year after year — especially Stephanie MacLean and Ben Southgate, who have really stepped up and helped secure sponsors to pay for signage and stuff like that. We have not perfected it by any stretch of the imagination, but we are learning every year; and everybody just gets so excited about it.”
That enthusiasm comes through quite clearly from the creativity with which cruise participants decorate their vehicles.
“We have some people who get so darn creative every year,” Coleman says. “It is just amazing. A couple of years ago, someone attached a basketball hoop to their vehicle with Santa dunking. Last year, we had someone with the Grinch sitting on their roof watching a working television that was mounted on the back of their vehicle. The creativity makes it so much fun.”
Each year, Coleman asks an impartial spectator to select their three favorite participants, who then receive gift cards. However, he says that the competition element is merely a means to encourage creativity and make the event even more fun.
“I run a 3,500-watt inverter generator and, last year, had 18,000 lights on my Jeep,” Coleman says. “It was completely covered. But you can just put a couple of strands of lights on your vehicle and be in [the cruise].”
Coleman estimates that roughly 75% of the holiday light cruise’s participants are Anthem residents, with the remaining 25% coming from as far north as Black Canyon City and as far south as Peoria.
Participants have always been encouraged to bring new, unwrapped toys and nonperishable food items, which are then donated to a local charity. However, this year’s cruise — which is set for Saturday, Dec. 10 — will take that one step further, with those donations serving as everyone’s entrance fee.
As it has the past two years, the holiday light cruise will begin at dusk at the Outlets at Anthem — a location from which Coleman strongly suggests spectators enjoy the show.
“We invite people to park in front of the outlets by the Christmas tree, set up their lawn chairs and watch as [our participants] pass by,” he says. “We are going to circle the entire outlet mall then exit out the back.”
From there, participants will cruise through Anthem’s west-side neighborhoods before making their way over I-17 and through the community’s east-side neighborhoods, including Arroyo Norte. If you are lucky, you may only need to set up your lawn chair at the end of your driveway to catch the cruise. However, Coleman says that Boulder Creek High School and Anthem Community Park are prime public viewing areas.
He and other event organizers are hopeful that the holiday light cruise can continue for many years to come. In only a few short years, it has already evolved into a beloved Yuletide tradition for the many participants and spectators who count on the convivial convoy to help ring in the season.
“A lot of us have our own businesses here and the community has always taken great care of us,” says Coleman, who owns Precise Pest Solutions. “The light cruise is a way that we can give back to the community. It is a way for myself, my wife, my team and everybody who participates to spread holiday love and cheer.
“It is extremely stressful sometimes, but this event is extremely important to me. And I do not see myself giving it up or trying to find someone else to take it over in the near future. Because I really look forward to it every year. It is just a fun event. And I enjoy the smiles on people’s faces as we go by.
“I wish that we could go slower, but I can still see the smiles — especially on the faces of those people who may not be able to get out and about and can just scoot out to their sidewalk or go down to the end of the street to see us go by. Those smiles make it all worth it every year.”
Anthem Holiday Light Cruise // Saturday, Dec. 10 // Dusk // Outlets at Anthem // 4250 W. Anthem Way, Phoenix // Free