From Popular Mechanics
It’s not the Washington Monument, but the 100-foot tree in the middle of Nationals Park bears a small resemblance to the obelisk a few miles away. It glows. It’s topped with a defiant point. It towers over its surroundings with regal singularity. Built from 4,600 pieces, decked in a quarter of a million lights, and running on 76 320-watt transformers, the tree is more an ode to ambitious engineering, meticulous planning, and over-the-top holiday cheer than it is to a Founding Father.
Enchant Christmas—a Vancouver-born company making interactive light experiences on the strength of some serious design, logistics, and manufacturing skills—transformed three Major League Baseball stadiums into gleaming winter wonderlands this year. The home fields of the Tampa Bay Rays, Seattle Mariners, and Washington Nationals are currently populated with massive light sculptures, winding ice skating trails, and hoards of hot chocolate-toting children shouting “cheese” around every corner.
Enchant launched its first Christmas event in 2016 in a Vancouver parking lot. By the time the event closed, roughly 20 percent of the city’s population had visited the display. This year, Enchant estimates over 300,000 people will visit each stadium, where the fields have been transformed into what the company refers to as light mazes. These structures don’t have dead ends due to safety regulations, but it’s still pretty easy to lose your way when you’re craning your neck at a jagged snowflake sculpture or navigating the obstacle course of selfie-takers.
Each sprawling holiday landscape materializes with the help of 63 full-time employees, including concept artists, 3D modelers, industrial designers, set designers, engineers, draftsmen, and electricians. Winding paths of 8×8 modular garland-covered walls are punctuated with impressive wireframe light sculptures of reindeer, ornaments, and an engagement ring (for love, actually). In DC, there’s a 240-foot long tunnel of daisy-chained RGB lights animated to wash between shades of blue and purple, plus an LED floor equipped with motion sensors so it changes color when kids and adults stomp around.
Enchant is extravagant and excessive, but it doesn’t feel cheesy like the Santa’s workshop at your local mall. Designers avoid harsh greens and reds in favor of softer winter colors, and there’s nothing cartoonish about the elegant sculptures. Even if your heart is two (okay, six) sizes too small, it’s hard to deny the display is beautiful.
“I don’t want anybody to be anywhere in the maze and not be captivated to go to another spot,” says Jared Schmale, the creative director of Enchant. “I want everywhere you look to have something of interest, something that’s pulling you in all three directions you could go.”
The work that went into making the maze possible began more than a year ago, and the process was as well-orchestrated as Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker. After all, Enchant is on an inflexible deadline.
“Christmas is coming, and we can’t push it back,” says Kevin Johnston, Enchant’s founder. Truer words.
Planning kicks off when the designers on Schmale’s team begin brainstorming. A lot of pie-in-the-sky ideas—like a Baroque-style Christmas tree with swirly paisley leaves (because nothing says “holiday spirit” like the 17th century)—are left on the cutting room floor, but the team throws everything at the wall to see what sticks. They dump images into a digital collage board before moving onto concept drawings, which can be “anything from a napkin sketch to a full color drawing,” according to Schmale. As the design team transitions to 3D construction, they band together to decide what will work well within the display. This year, for instance, they selected from 25 proposed gestures for a dinosaur sculpture, deciding against an imposing standing pose in favor of a seated posture that made the figure not only more stable, but more huggable. Once the approval process is over, elements are modeled in wireframe and prepared for manufacturing.
Eventually, the dozens of sculptures and miles of garland bound for each city fill up about 45 40-foot shipping containers and traverse the country. It takes between 50 and 100 people two weeks to set up each display on its respective field. The majority of items arrive in pieces, and the more complicated centerpieces are put together in a practice run over the summer. That way, minor errors—a bent branch here, a misaligned socket there—can be fixed in advance. Enchant also builds custom shipping racks to cradle the items in transport. With apologies to Rudolf, there’s little room for reindeer games here.
In past years, pieces have broken in transit, and an on-site spot welder has been called in for repairs. Nothing too serious has fallen apart, though Enchant has had to deal with missing items before. Last year, a teddy bear sculpture showed up in Arlington, Texas, without its body. With limited time, Enchant crew members repurposed a wooden box as a makeshift torso, stapled on garland and attached the original arms, legs, and head. Schmale says it was a solid impromptu solution, but he was glad when the bear’s body eventually turned up.
This year, no such luck.
When it came time for the Seattle display to assemble its 60-foot cone tree and surrounding LED dance floor, the crew realized one of the tree’s base pieces was missing. The item was stuck 2,500 miles away in a storage facility in Soddy-Daisy, Tennessee. Enchant doesn’t have the speed or efficiency of Santa making his rounds on Christmas Eve, and shipping the piece across the country would have run a high tab, so instead of waiting for a Christmas miracle, the crew built another piece on the fly. The on-site engineer took measurements and had a piece custom-made for a fraction of the cost of shipping the original.
“It went from a day of, ‘Oh my goodness, what are we going to do,’ to ‘Here’s a solution, let’s execute,’” Schmale says.
Problem-solving is perhaps Enchant’s greatest strength. The 100-foot tall pine tree in the middle of Nats Park was a particularly intricate element to put together this year. The marvel includes a 300-piece structural steel base and 10, 10-foot sections of trunk. A crane is required to build the tree, and Enchant staffers had to deflate the machine’s tires a couple of inches to even fit it through the stadium entrance. Once the crane was inside, it traversed about 50 yards on those tires to assemble the tree over the course of four days. A crew of 20 people facilitated the top-down construction, as pieces of the trunk were attached, lifted, and then nested underneath one another. Steel branches were slid and bolted into the trunk, then lighter aluminum leaves intended to look like illuminated pine needles were plugged into each branch. The tree is attached to the stadium with guy wires and anchored by 60,000 pounds of concrete ballast weight to ensure it doesn’t move in case of winds or an earthquake. It’s not going anywhere.
Seattle has a 100-foot tree, made of 40,000 RGB lights so bright they wash out the tree frame. Schmale says it looks more like a video screen than a web of lights you might hang on your house, and this “screen” is programmed to feature geometric patterns and color movements. It reacts immediately when designers want to change the display.
The trees are Enchant’s big jaw-droppers, but they’re not the most energy-sucking elements on the field. Those would be the custom-made ice rinks. The DC rink stretches 400 feet long and relies on 200 amps to run. Jordan Birch, Enchant’s director of business development, says the idea of creating an ice “trail”—as opposed to a traditional ovular surface—came to him through a memory from his college years, when he visited a friend’s hunting lodge in Pennsylvania.
“We went ice skating on this creek, and it was just the coolest thing to skate down this creek and have the stars overhead,” Birch says. “We needed to recreate that.”
On-site chillers keep the ice frozen by running an antifreeze solution, kept around 17 degrees Fahrenheit, through thousands of tubes beneath the ice’s surface. In Florida, the rink is usable until temperatures in the stadium hit just above 71 degrees.
The Florida heat isn’t the only weather issue Enchant is equipped to confront. The stadiums in Tampa Bay and Seattle have roofs, but Nats Park in DC is open to the elements. For all the romance of a white Christmas, Enchant would be better off if things stayed dry, because snowfall would require crew members to deploy a surprisingly hands-on solution for such a technical event: shovels. At Nats Park, the Enchant team is prepared to pull out 40 shovels, and because salt can damage a baseball diamond, elbow grease is the team’s first and last line of defense against Mother Nature.
Though snow would be a pain to clear, falling flurries would also make a pretty picture—and the would-be selfie subjects using every corner of Enchant for personal photoshoots certainly know that, too. Enchant recognizes the visual strength of their display inevitably turns it into a social media laboratory, and they don’t shy away from it. They even put buttons around the floor to activate studio lighting and negate the life-shattering horror of a backlit photo.
And although the company doesn’t resent the Instagrammable nature of their event, they also want to engage guests in ways that don’t translate through a screen. There are scent diffusers that pump aromas of cedar and cinnamon throughout the event, carolers to serenade the crowd, and holiday-themed foods like a Christmas morning waffle bar and “enchanted hot chocolate” topped with an absurd amount of whipped cream, a massive marshmallow, and a locally-made miniature gingerbread house.
“Instagram only captures your sense of sight,” says Ryland Greenhouse, city manager of the DC event. “We’re working with smell, taste, touch. That’s where the guest experience comes in, because when they share that, they have a story behind it.”
Once all the photos have been tagged and the hot chocolate has been sipped, teardown for Enchant begins, and Christmas present becomes Christmas past. The teardown team numbers around 60 people each day, and Enchant has 10 days to be off the field and 15 to leave the concourse in DC. Then it’s back to Santa’s workshop to prepare for next year.
The 2020 event is already underway, and Schmale said next year he hopes to incorporate more sound machines and new materials like inflatables and projection. Whatever the team comes up with, it’s safe to say it won’t be subdued, because even though they’re a winter event, Enchant has no chill when it comes to their work.
“It has to be over the top, something guests have never experienced elsewhere,” Birch says. “We’re trying to create to create magical memories for people.”
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