Local man brings family entertainment to the Hogle Zoo and Willard Bay for the holidays

Story and photographs by CHELSEA EBELING

Clyde “Sonny” Gilbert set a strict rule for his 2011 entertainment projects: be successful.

December 2011 will mark the ninth year for Gilbert’s Fantasy at the Bay light park at Willard Bay State Park in Willard, Utah. It’s also the fourth year for Zoo Lights at Utah’s Hogle Zoo  in Salt Lake City. And for the first time, Gilbert opened an all-inclusive Halloween light park at Willard Bay in October 2011.

After having three light parks under his belt, one might say Gilbert has met his goal. But his success didn’t come without lots of dedication and hard work.

Sonny Gilbert and wife LeAnn at Fright at the Bay

Gilbert was born in Brigham City, Utah, but raised about 20 miles south of there in Ogden. He didn’t return to Brigham City until later in his life. As a teenager, Gilbert’s priorities were focused more on skipping school than actually attending classes. After high school Gilbert planned on being a barber for a career, but was set off track by painting and doing bodywork for cars, passions that he carried from his childhood into his adult life.

In 2002 Gilbert went to Branson, Mo., for vacation and visited the Port of Lights, a Christmas light park. While walking through the park he noticed how much business the lights attracted.  Custom car work hadn’t allowed Gilbert to save as much money for his retirement fund as he would have liked. Seeing all the people at the light park gave him a new idea about how he was going to acquire that money. After examining the craftsmanship of the lights he thought to himself, “I could build this stuff.”

Once Gilbert returned home, he developed plans about where he wanted to create a light park. He then hired a local artist to get ideas for the characters he would build. After everything was approved by Willard Bay, he got a second mortgage on his house in order to finance the project. It took him a year to build the lights for the park and in late November 2003 he opened Fantasy at the Bay.

Fantasy at the Bay is a Christmas-themed light park that has animated winter characters built out of lights throughout it. The park includes everything from a reindeer flight school showing the successes and failures of Santa’s reindeer-in-training to snowmen and snowwomen having snowball fights. Spectators have the option of driving through the park on car paths lined with sparkling lights and hidden speakers playing Christmas music, or taking a ride on the carriage pulled by horses.

For the convenience of customers, Fantasy at the Bay includes a heated room at the beginning of the lights where Santa is awaiting visitors and a concession stand to purchase some treats or hot cocoa.

These days families are spending less and less time together and Gilbert’s light parks are becoming tools to help bring people back together. “It’s so nice to get away from stress and escape into the fantasy and spirit of the holidays with my family,” said Debbie Bouck, a visitor of the Fantasy at the Bay.

After seeing how well the Christmas light park did, Gilbert wondered where else he could expand his talents. He had gone to the Denver Zoo in Denver, Colo., where he saw lights incorporated into the zoo. That visit influenced Gilbert to approach the Hogle Zoo in 2006 about doing something similar there during Christmas time. The zoo agreed and contracted with Gilbert stating that as long as he created animals that were currently there he was free to create his masterpieces. The first Zoo Lights premiered on Dec. 1, 2007.

Zoo Lights features more than 100 animated safari animals placed in between thousands of illuminated trees with Christmas lights strung along them. Gilbert will be allowed some creative freedom for the first time in December 2011. He’s premiering some newer animal lights this year, but is keeping what they are a secret until they are set up in the park.

Animated light display at Fright at the Bay

Also new this year was Fright at the Bay, a Halloween-themed family entertainment area at Willard Bay. Gilbert set up animated light characters depicting witches stirring pots with children in them, skeletons and other scary creatures all along the park to entertain the whole family.

“There’s something for everybody,” Gilbert said. “There’s the lights for parents to entertain their small kids while their teenagers can go be freaked out in the tent and shoot each other in laser tag.”

Speakers playing Halloween music were set up along the car paths for extra effect. A tractor-pulled hay ride that took visitors through the lights was also available. The park included concessions to quench hunger and thirst, a haunted tent, face and pumpkin paintings, haunted mazes and an area designated for laser tag.

Creating these light parks and doing what he loves makes him happy. “I never was educated, so people telling me how good I do is a motivation for me to succeed,” Gilbert said. “If you’re not happy what else is there?”