Interview with McKinney Christmas

Interview with McKinney Christmas
Screenshot of the control software
Image credit: Kenny Ahnemann/McKinney Christmas
Image credit: Kenny Ahnemann/McKinney Christmas

Note: this is a reprint of an interview I did last year

For several years, my neighborhood has been visible from space.

It started with a handful of lights. By handful, I mean 10,000 individual Christmas lights, which is already a Griswoldian achievement in my eyes. Four years later, the total was 70,000. That rate of growth, combined with the 40 years I have left on this firmament, will lead to a 685,000 light spectacular come 2051.

Ladies and gentleman, meet my neighbors the Ahnemanns, who run the McKinney Christmas show.

Kenny, his wife Sam, son Draven, and a host of friends work each year to present our fair burg’s big Christmas light show. Since I’ve moved to the neighborhood, I’ve been interested in meeting the Ahnemanns; this year proved to be perfect, since I was able to flex my schedule. I didn’t want to just talk to Kenny, but I wanted to get a sense of what went into staging this event. The Ahnemanns were especially gracious enough to let me visit their home and get a hands-on look at the equipment that drives the event.

Kenny is originally from the Plano area, working as a consultant implementing IT networks. Knowledge of networking hardware would prove important for McKinney Christmas, I’d soon discover (more on this in a little bit). Soon after getting married, he and his family relocated to Craig Ranch in McKinney in 2006, and he put on his first show the following year.

After our chit-chat inside, Kenny took me outside to show how the sausage was made.

The Guts

While I correctly assumed that some sophisticated software was driving Kenny’s show, it was his hardware setup that most surprised me.

The nervous system of McKinney Christmas is comprised of 12 controllers, daisy-chained to one another using standard ethernet cables.

Like something straight out of a 1950s advertisement, the brand name for his controllers was Light-O-Rama (in the past, D-Light did the trick). For those of you in the Far North Dallas area, Light-O-Rama controllers drive not only McKinney Christmas, but also the big Frisco Square light show. Each controller has 16 channels, providing a grand total of 192 channels that can be individually programmed. Think tracks in audio recording — each channel can act independently of one another.

Even if Kenny didn’t have a coordinated light show, the light strands themselves would be impressive. As mentioned earlier, McKinney Christmas 2010 consisted of 70,000 lights. This equals 3.3 miles of light! I would have thought it ran to the moon and back, but that’s still impressive length. These lights are then grouped into strands consisting of three colors: red, green, and clear. In other words, in whatever direction the wires run, there are three colors side-by-side.

These light strands must be balanced amongst the 12 controllers to reduce load. And using 1 mile of extension cords, these strands and controllers are eventually plugged into an array of custom power outlets in the garage. These outlets are wired to breakers capable of supporting 15 amps, meaning each outlet can handle two controllers each.

Total wattage hits 30,000 watts, nearly enough to send you back in time (but only if you wrap the house in stainless steel and accelerate it to 88 miles per hour).

The Brains

The brains behind the operation is PC-based software by Light-O-Rama. Although it’s published by the same company that made Kenny’s controllers, Light-O-Rama’s software works with different brands of controllers. The lone computer running the show sits in the garage. The software GUI and editing concepts isn’t dissimilar from other track-based programs like Audacity, Final Cut Pro, etc.

The 2010 show leveraged 5 different songs, and each song’s choreography was programmed from scratch by Kenny. It takes significant time to program the songs during the show’s off-season.

A good effect of a well-balanced program is balancing power usage, to preserve the lights & controllers and cut down on energy demand.

There is an “all-on” mode that Kenny programmed, which will turn every light on at once — long enough to take some of the great photographs you see on his website.

The Props

No Christmas is complete without a tree, and Kenny has assembled one that rises several stories off the ground. Custom-built from PVC pipe, it features a central trunk supporting a collar that raises with a pulley. The tree consumes 10K lights alone!

When I light my own house, I use hot glue to secure the light strands to my house. Kenny did this at one time. These days, he uses reusable mounts: frames of black-painted wood that are pre-wrapped with lights and secured to the house using concrete screws painted to match the brick. The poles of his front porch and several snowflakes are examples of such hanging props. (2011 note: I had grand ambitions of doing this. Then I decided to have a daughter due around Christmas time. It’s all her fault!)

On the crown of Kenny’s roof is a 6′ lit cross. I’m sure that in a second life, it doubled as a TV transmission tower or derigible landing pole. Of course it’s not drilled into the roof (unless you want nature to shower into your attic), but instead is supported by tension mounts that wrap under his eaves. The cross is so massive that it must be stored in the garage during the off-season; everything else can fit into his attic. It also requires a crane rental to get it off the ground.

The Upkeep

Not much maintenance is required during the season. Lights burn out regularly, but Kenny will rarely make an effort to repair. This is because if one light out of 70K goes out, you’re not going to notice — so the light will remain black unless a recognizable length goes out.

The biggest enemy of the show is rain. Because the controllers and several connecting components lie close to the ground, any water touching those parts may cause the controllers to pull too many amps. Kenny has to keep an eye on the weather to ensure no chaos occurs against his equipment or electric bills. Unfortunately, the rain prevented McKinney Christmas from running on Christmas Eve, usually his biggest night. Maybe next year….

The People

The show gets several reactions. Those closest to the fray — Kenny’s neighbors — generally like it, and his next-door neighbor cheerfully tolerates sharing part of his lawn to support the Christmas tree. I asked Kenny about his other two immediate neighbors, both of whom moved into the neighborhood after the last show — no, they weren’t shocked by the presentation, which I’m sure their realtor had no idea to disclose. But they enjoy it nonetheless.

When it comes to our neighborhood’s HOA, McKinney Christmas hasn’t been a big deal in past years — largely due to Kenny following their tyrannical decrees regarding when to put up and remove lights. The size of this year’s show meant that Kenny had to start early, staging & testing lights for the three weeks before Thanksgiving. My wife and I like to joke about who will get their lights up first — Kenny, or the HOA.

The most important part of the show — the audience who visits the neighborhood to be dazzled — have also behaved well, by not congesting the neighborhood too much. Occasionally, one of hem will drive by with their windows rolled down and radio turned up, but I took care of them by firing off my sprinklers when they walked across my lawn. This year, McKinney Christmas sponsored a toy drive benefitting Toys for Tots. Between Thanksgiving and December 14th, Kenny gathered several presents from these visitors, helping to give several area children a very Merry Christmas.

The Future

McKinney Christmas will be back next year (Santa has to have some help finding McKinney). Kenny will add more lights, with the goal of keeping things tasteful. “There is a fine line between what looks cool & not tacky,” he says. Post-Christmas is when he stocks up on lights, taking advantage of after-holiday sales. Where it makes sense, he replaces strings with LED lights; otherwise, he goes with incandescents to curb costs and keep a consistent look.

He did hint that he owns some snow machines that just might made their debut next year. Dude, that would totally blow! (2011 note: the snow machines did indeed make a debut this year, although I understand they might broken at the moment)

Below are some pictures I took during my visit. When you get a moment, visit McKinney Christmas and check out some of Kenny’s own videos and pictures. Don’t stare too long at your computer screen, tho — it’s like staring into the sun at times!

(2011 footnote: my son Zachary became aware of Kenny’s light show for the first time this year. We parked in front of their house and watched the show for awhile. His main comment: “That’s a lot of lights!” Yep.)