When neighbors of similar spirit put their bulbs together, it begins to look a lot like Christmas. And we mean a lot.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The gifts are wrapped; the tree is up, the turkey's thawing. Most of the boat parades are over--the last run of the Newport Harbor boat parade is at 6:30 tonight--but there's still time for another great Southern California tradition: cruising for Christmas lights.

Not just any street will do. You want streets with light displays so bright you have to reach for your shades. You want Santa's workshops, elves and reindeer, Nativity scenes, animated figures, simulated snow and recorded music. A few people who dress up like Santa and hand out candy canes wouldn't hurt either.

We've got that and more this year in our annual guide to lights. The neighborhoods and single homes listed here were not decked out by ordinary people. They are the work of the Christmas-obsessed.

There's the street where Matt Simpson lives in Anaheim, a cul-de-sac with three houses all lavishly decorated by Simpson--a man on a constant quest for more electrical power.

Other Simpsons are up the roof: a plywood Homer in a boat pulling a plywood Bart on water-skis. Santa's workshop is on the lawn; a lighted manger scene and Santa and reindeer are the themes on the other houses. It takes Simpson and his father-in-law about 80 hours to set up the display, which consumes enough electricity to make the Edison people's Christmas a merry one.

There's Country Club Drive in Buena Park, where traditional greenery garlands and red bows decorate brick-and-wrought-iron fences, and Santa sits in an antique car in the frontyard of the house on the corner while kids in a hot-rod sled swoop down the slope of the snow-covered roof.

There are small shows of holiday decor on the tour we present, and there are large ones that encompass entire tracts. Together they form a collective offering from all those Orange County residents who band together each holiday season to turn their homes and neighborhoods into living greeting cards.

To see the sights, just grab a map book, a thermos of hot cocoa and the car keys and follow this handy guide. (Map references listed are for the Thomas Guide to Orange County.)

North County

* Brea's Flower Hill Street neighborhood offers elaborate lighting displays and illuminated figures. More than two dozen decorated homes dazzle the senses and make kids and grown-ups ooh and aah.

To get there, take the 57 Freeway to Birch Street, turn east to Flower Hill, which is about halfway between Kraemer Boulevard and South Valencia Avenue. Enter the tract by turning north onto Flower Hill. Hours are dusk to 10 p.m. through Monday. (Map 709, F-7)

* Yorba Linda's Eastlake Shores development is North County's answer to those coastal boat parades. The community's lighted paddle boats and small sailboats have already paraded around the manufactured lake, but there are still quite a few sights to see.

Walk or drive the streets for a view of sophisticated decorating on the 120 homes that line the lake. The water's reflection doubles the effect.

To get there, take the Riverside Freeway to Imperial Highway, head north to Esperanza Road, turn east to Fairmont Boulevard then north to Pas de las Palomas. Turn east to Village Center Drive and you are on the boundary of Eastlake Shores. Hours are 5 to 10 p.m. through Dec. 31. (Map 740, F-5.)

* A plywood Santa will guide you to another Yorba Linda neighborhood, Windemere Village, where wooden cutouts and lights adorn the 41 homes. There's a Scottish house, a Candyland house and a Night Before Christmas house.

A life-sized Nativity scene adorns the common area on Carriage Circle, just off Windemere Drive, and a 20-foot tree of lights topped by a 5-foot star illuminates the area. Lighted snowmen holding Windemere Village signs greet visitors at each entrance to the tract. Resident Rod Anderson, a commercial artist, is credited by neighbors with designing and building the myriad cutout figures and supervising overall decorating.

To get there, take Rose Drive (which becomes Tustin Avenue in Orange) to Buena Vista Avenue, turn east; at Windemere Drive, turn north into the tract. Hours are dusk to 10 p.m. through Monday. (Map 739, H-5.)

Central County

* Orange is home to several neighborhood displays but has lost a single-house extravaganza that drew 10,000 to 15,000 visitors each year.

This year, Randy and Jennifer Gates have moved to Villa Park, where their enormous Christmas display sprawls across their front yard and half of the neighbor's.

The Gateses' display, which has grown up over eight consecutive seasons, has developed a huge following of regular viewers and that has caused some controversy in a neighborhood not used to so much nighttime traffic, so be considerate of the neighbors as you view the animated elves and ice-skaters, the 35-foot sled and the 6-foot toy soldier and the "snow"-covered yard lit by thousands of lights.

The Gateses put out a guest book to help keep count of the visitors, and contributions tossed into a wishing well are donated to local programs--this year the recipient is the Orange Unified School district's special education department.

To get there, take Tustin Street to Collins Avenue, go east on Collins to Wanda Road and turn left to Lincoln Street. Turn right on Lincoln, right again on Providence Drive (if you can't see the glow in the sky by this time, you may need to have your vision checked), make a quick left onto Aberdeen Lane, and Dorothy Circle is the next street on the left. It's easiest to park and walk to the Gateses' place at 10691 Dorothy, because the street is a smallish cul-de-sac.

Hours are 5 to 10 p.m. through Dec. 31. (Map 800, B-1.)

* Back out on Collins, head west into Orange to check out the 500 block of North Waverly, a long cul-de-sac where every house is brightly lit. To reach the street, turn south onto Cambridge Street, east on Walnut Avenue and left into the cul-de-sac. (Map 799, H-3.)

* Old Towne Orange's plaza, at Chapman Avenue and Glassell Street, will take you back in time with its Santa, snowman and Nativity scene. Vintage homes throughout the mile-square Old Towne area are decorated, but the best stretch is the 300 and 400 blocks of South Grand Street.

To get to South Grand, take the 22 Freeway to the Glassell Street offramp, go north on Glassell to La Veta Avenue, turn east for two short blocks to Grand and drive north.

Hours are dusk to 10 p.m, through Monday. (Map 799, G-5.)

To get to the plaza, keep going north on Grand to Chapman Avenue. Turn west and the plaza is in front of you two blocks down. (Map 799, G-4.)

* A little outside of Old Towne at 932 E. Chapman Ave., an interior designer has swathed the old home he uses for his business, as well as the trees and shrubs in the front yard, in thousands of clear lights.

Several other businesses along that stretch of Chapman between the plaza and Tustin Street also are decorated and might catch your eye as you drive by. (Map 799, H-4 and J-4.)

* West Main Street in Tustin, with its homes built in the late 1800s and early 1900s, offers another look at Christmases past. Manger scenes and Christmas figures adorn the 300, 400 and 500 blocks.

To get there from the intersection of Newport Avenue and Main Street, drive west on Main to the 300 block. Hours are dusk to 10 p.m. through Jan. 1. (Map 830, A-3 and B-3.)

* Follow the cars to Tustin's Basswood Circle, which boasts decorated parkway trees, rooftop and yard scenes with sleighs, trains and gingerbread men and where most of the 14 houses are "just dripping with icicle lights," says resident Trish Grencik.

Residents try to add something new each year, like the backyard playhouse that has been relocated to the front yard and turned into a guard house for toy soldiers. Grencik says the Christmas decorating bug has spread to many of the 150 houses in the Pepper Tree homes tract, and visitors can wind around the whole area.

On nearby Caper Tree Drive is a village display inside a cave-like double garage. There's a waterfall, nativity scene, sound effects--a little of everything.

Grencik, who has added grapevine reindeer to her display this year (with blankets and bows she made for them), said residents started decorating the week before Thanksgiving.

Hours are 5:30 to 10 p.m. through Jan. 1. To get there, take Walnut Avenue east to Raintree, turn south two blocks to Basswood, which is on the left. (Map 830, C-7.)

* In Santa Ana, the family of the late Rosario Velardes is reconstructing the Christmas offering she made each year for decades in her front yard at 219 E. Warner Ave. The display uses more than 500 clay figures the family has collected and depicts 30 scenes from Christ's life with miniature waterfalls, handmade wooden houses, a sandy desert and lights.

The multilevel panoramic display covers the width of the front yard and rises to about 5 feet on a terraced platform. Hours are all day until 9:30 p.m. through Jan. 6.

To get there, from the intersection of Warner Avenue and Main Street in Santa Ana, go two blocks east on Warner. The home is on the north side of the street. (Map 829, E-7)

* The Dahlia tract in Fountain Valley remains Orange County's undisputed leader in the Christmas decorating sweepstakes. The 75-home tract bordered by Heil and Edinger avenues and Brookhurst and Bushard streets truly lights up the sky. Almost every home is decorated, most of them lavishly, with awe-inspiring displays of lights and animated figures on every street.

To get there, find Mile Square Park. From the corner of Edinger Avenue and Brookhurst Street, go south on Brookhurst about one-third mile to Thistle Avenue and turn west. Thistle is the entrance to the tract. This popular display often is open only to foot traffic. Hours are 5 to 10 p.m. through Monday. (Map 829, D-6 and E-6)

* The Fountain Valley homes are what inspired Matt Simpson to throw himself into decorating Minerva Place, a small street of three houses in Anaheim. The residents all are related.

Simpson says other neighbors in the area question his mental stability when they consider how much time he spends decking the halls . . . and walls and lawns and roofs. . . . But his three children love it, says Simpson, who comes up with ideas for the displays all year long.

Simpson, a physical education teacher in Downey, asked one of his students to draw the Simpson figures for him. He's already planning next year's addition, a ski lift from one house to another.

If you visit Minerva Place, you'll probably see Simpson. He'll be the one in the red suit handing out candy canes.

To get there, take Ball Road to Nutwood Avenue, head north to Beacon Avenue and turn left. Turn left again when Beacon ends and you'll be on Minerva Avenue: Minerva Place is the first left. (Map 768, E-7.)

* A bit farther north and west is Buena Park and Los Coyotes and Country Club drives. Residents in the homes bordering Los Coyotes Country Club have decorated with an elegance that reminds some visitors of a wintry New England scene.

The drive begins on Country Club, reached by taking Beach Boulevard to Malvern Avenue, turning right on Malvern and left onto Country Club. Santa and his antique coupe are at 8340 Country Club.

The street winds uphill, connecting with Los Coyotes Drive near the entry to the country club. Veer left on Los Coyotes to continue around the edge of the golf course and follow Los Coyotes Drive until it empties out on Beach again, a block south of Rosecrans Avenue. (Map 737, J-5, and 738, A-5 and A-4.) Hours are dusk until 10 p.m. through Monday.

* La Palma's Dallas Drive neighborhood is smaller but just about as elaborately decorated as the Dahlia tract. Thousands of strands of lights drape the houses; recorded Christmas music plays, and animated Christmas characters do their stuff.

To get there, take 91 Freeway to the Orangethorpe Avenue offramp, go a half block west to Walker Avenue, turn south and go about mile to Houston Avenue. Turn west onto Houston; Dallas Drive is the first cross street. Hours are dusk to 10 p.m. through Monday. (Map 767, D-2)

* Another high-wattage stop is the 9900 block of Denni Street in Cypress. There are only three houses here, but they burn enough electricity for a whole neighborhood.

To get there, take Ball Road to Denni Street and turn north. The three houses are at the corner, facing Veteran's Park. Hours: dusk to 9:30 p.m. through Jan. 1. (Map 797, B-1.)

Coastal Orange County

* The homes of Huntington Harbour are often decked out in professionally applied displays of holiday lights. The homes can be viewed by walking or driving through the water-oriented neighborhood.

To get there, take Warner Avenue west to Pacific Coast Highway, go north about a mile to Coral Cay Lane and turn right. Coral Cay leads to one of six "islands" that make up Huntington Harbour.

Hours are dusk to 10 p.m. through Monday. (Map 827, A-6, 7 and B-6, 7.)

* Farther down the coast is Harbor Ridge, a gated community in the hills above Corona del Mar. The Harbor Ridge Women's Club turns the entrance to the community into a wonderland, transforming the guardhouse into a Christmas cottage with lights, faux snow and garlands.

There's a life-size sleigh with a Santa, a lighted tree, decorated topiary and a series of 4-foot candlesticks.

To get there, take MacArthur Boulevard to San Joaquin Hills Road or San Miguel Drive. From San Joaquin, head south to Spyglass Hill Road and turn left; from San Miguel, head north to Spyglass and turn right. From either direction, follow Spyglass up the hill to the Harbor Ridge entrance. (Map 889, H-7.) Hours are dusk until midnight through Monday.

South County

* The Baja Oso development in Mission Viejo features a number of homes with lighting displays, cut-out characters and other trimmings.

To get there, take the 405 Freeway to Oso Parkway and head east on Oso to Marguerite Parkway. Turn south and go for about two miles to Mesilla, turn west (the only way you can go on Mesilla) and you are in Baja Oso. Hours are dusk until 9:30 p.m. through Monday. (Map 922, C-5.)

Take a trip down Candy Cane Lane on Via Lantana in Rancho Santa Margarita. Elves, giant lollipops, assorted Santas, snowmen and reindeer line the frontyards along with candy canes, one of them 20 feet tall.

Residents are collecting nonperishable food for the needy, and you may add to the collection barrel.

To get there, take the 405 Freeway to the Oso Parkway offramp, Oso to Antonio Parkway and Antonio north across Santa Margarita Parkway to Verdea Laguna. Turn right on Verdea Laguna, left on Via Carissa, right on Allyssum, follow it around until it becomes Via Felecia, then follow Via Felicia to Via Lantana and turn left.

Hours are 5 to 9 p.m. through Dec. 31. (Map 893, C-1.)

* In Aliso Viejo, the sky glows around Pheasant Lane, where most homes are lighted. The palm tree in the front yard of 14 Pheasant Lane is swathed in strings of light that make it look like a giant candy cane, and neighbors awarded it the prize for the most spectacularly lit display around.

To get there, take El Toro Road south from the 405 Freeway or north from Laguna Canyon Road to Aliso Creek Road. Head east on Aliso Creek to Westwing, then turn north. Pheasant Lane is the first left. Hours are dusk to 11 p.m. through Dec. 31. (Map 921, C-2.)

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