A drive through Sandy Point State Park during the holiday season means one thing: That it’s once again time for Anne Arundel Medical Center’s (AAMC) Lights on the Bay, the annual bright, colorful reflection of the lifestyle in Anne Arundel County.

Animated displays depict United States Naval Academy midshipmen tossing their hats; “Chessie,” the Chesapeake Bay’s version of the legendary Loch Ness Monster, frolicking in the snow; and a lit-up colonial village that mirrors local historic architecture, among many other attractions.

The event draws visitors from around the mid-Atlantic, said Katherine Shingles, coordinator of the event for the hospital, partially because “People come over the bridge and see the lights when they’re visiting from out of town.”

AAMC is sponsoring the show, which kicks off at Sandy Point State Park on Nov. 22 and runs through Jan. 2, for the 22nd time this year. It features a two-mile scenic drive along the Chesapeake Bay, with 70 animated and stationary displays illuminating the roadway.

Lights on the Bay costs about $100,000 a year to present, including installation, electricity, insurance, supplies, and park and display rental. The hospital makes about $50,000 in profit each year from the event, said Shingles.

The light show has grown into enough of a tradition for people to be driving themselves, their kids and now their grandkids through the display, she said. “We have teenagers come through on date night. We have empty nesters come through with their puppies. We have senior citizens come through on date night, too.”

Apparently, the event can become an even bigger deal than just date night. What’s one of the biggest claims to fame for Lights on the Bay? It has become a draw for popping the question: “Over 22 years, we’ve had more than 100 marriage proposals,” Shingles said.

A Healthy Glow

Both Lights on the Bay and the Symphony of Lights — which is returning to Columbia this fall, after a year’s hiatus, to Merriweather Park at Symphony Woods — are the largest fundraisers for the AAMC and Howard County General Hospital (HCGH), respectively.

Between corporate sponsors, admission ticket sales and private donations, the cost of building and powering the displays is quickly offset. While the cost of powering the lights has decreased due to the development of LED technology, the lights themselves have to be purchased, designed, displayed and stored.

Admission tickets range from $15–$30 at both events, depending on the day and the size of the vehicle. Both depend on corporate sponsors to offset costs and ensure a level of fundraising that will make a difference in the community. They also feature a special night to bring pets through the lights, walks and runs through the lights on designated days, and military appreciation nights. This year, the Symphony of Lights has added a “Bike the Lights” night for riders of all ages.

Proceeds from the Symphony of Lights, also now in its 22nd year and having attracted nearly 2 million visitors, have raised more than $7.5 million to benefit HCGH.

“The Symphony of Lights would not be possible without the support of our community through sponsorships and in-kind donations,” said Emily Shreve, events manager for the Howard Hospital Foundation. “We appreciate the commitment of these partners to this treasured holiday tradition and to Howard County General Hospital.”

What’s New?

An outdoor ice skating rink will be added to the holiday features at Merriweather, as well a new laser light show and a 3-D holiday video that will be projected 50–feet high at the pavilion. Plans indicate that, as redevelopment continues at the pavilion, so will the lights.

The light symphony is now in its third decade, so locals and visitors who are driving through the display not only enjoy the visuals but, as is the case with Lights on the Bay, many are deep into family traditions that revolve around the event. Phyllis Weller, a Howard County resident since 1962, said she has been driving through the Symphony of Lights since it began.

“We took our kids through when they were little, then our grandkids when they were little,” she said. Now that Weller’s grandsons are teenagers, they drive her through the lights, still observing the special tradition.

“This year,” she said, “the boys can go with their friends to the ice rink, too.”