Making Light of the Holidays : Tour promises to sparkle with good cheer--you could even say it glows.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. His name is Matt. And Colleen. And Trish. He lives in Anaheim and in Lake Forest and in Tustin. Sometimes he wears a red suit, sometimes he doesn't.

But he always leaves a present: the gift of good cheer. His medium? Christmas lights. He puts them everywhere--rooftops and boats and topiary.

Sometimes he works with animated figures or plywood cutouts and recorded music. Other times, he's more subtle, setting out hundreds of luminaria--candles nestled in sand-filled paper bags that give off a comforting glow.

Where there's water, he sometimes treats onlookers to brightly decorated boats, from the yachts that ply Huntington, Newport and Dana Point harbors to the people-powered paddle boats of Yorba Linda's Eastlake community.

And he rarely works alone.

Matt Simpson and his neighbor, Harry Saehlenou, start work before Thanksgiving to deck out the three homes in their Minerva Place cul-de-sac in Anaheim with an elaborate holiday scene that uses cutouts of TV's Simpson family.

On Trish Grencik's street, Basswood Circle in Tustin, every resident gets into the act, stringing lights, wrapping street trees in colorful ribbons and setting up holiday characters.

And in Colleen Hartley's Lake Forest cul-de-sac, the neighborhood children help set up the hundreds of luminaria that will line Meadowbrook Circle on Dec. 22. Hartley says it all started two years ago when she lined the walk in front of her house with luminaria. A neighbor loved the look and proposed that the whole street do it.

That was last year. Now it's on the way to becoming a neighborhood custom.

"We have a driveway party for the neighbors. It's a warm, holiday feeling. It brings us together," Hartley said.

You can share the feeling. They'll keep the candles glowing from 5 to about 9 p.m.

But the luminaria of Meadowbrook Circle are just one of 25 stops on our fifth annual tour of the lights.

So grab your map book (our guide is keyed to the Thomas Guide map pages), pile into the car and set out to find these neighborhoods--from one end of Orange County to the other--that are giving the gift of holiday cheer this year.

North County

In Orange County's far north is Buena Park and its Los Coyotes Country Club neighborhood. Residents of Los Coyotes and Country Club drives decorate their homes in a wintry New England theme.

To get there, take Beach Boulevard to Malvern Avenue and turn right. Take Malvern to Country Club Drive, turn left and head uphill on the winding road until it connects with Los Coyotes Drive near the country club entrance. Veer left on Los Coyotes and follow it until it hits Beach Boulevard just south of Rosecrans Avenue. Hours are dusk until 10 p.m. through Dec. 25. (Map 737, J-5, and 738, A-4 and 5.)

Minerva Place in Anaheim has just three houses, but the residents--all relatives--put on a display big enough for 300. Matt Simpson, a physical education teacher, is the decorator and he spends weeks decking the halls . . . and walls, lawns, roofs and trees. He's got giant animated cutouts of the other Simpsons--Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa and Maggie--on the roofs, and an illuminated creche filling one frontyard. A mechanical ski lift is new this year. A live Simpson, Matt himself, wearing a Santa suit, often greets visitors and hands out candy canes.

To get there, take Ball Road to Nutwood Avenue, go north on Nutwood to Beacon Avenue and turn left. Turn left onto Minerva Avenue when Beacon ends. Minerva Place is the first left after that. Hours are 5:30 to 10 p.m. (Map 768, E-7.)

La Palma's Dallas Drive is a pocket version of Central Orange County's Dahlia tract--a pioneer in neighborhood decorating. There are about a dozen homes on the cul-de-sac all draped in tens of thousands of lights. Recorded music serenades visitors while animated characters strut their stuff.

To get there, take the Riverside Freeway to the Orangethorpe Avenue offramp, go half a block west to Walker Avenue, turn south and drive about a mile to Houston Avenue. Turn west onto Houston; Dallas Drive is the first cross-street. Hours are dusk to 10 p.m. through Dec. 31. (Map 767, D-2.)

In Brea, the Eagle Hills neighborhood offers magnificent lighting displays. Several of the two dozen or more decorated homes are so bright that sunglasses might not be out of the question. Some nights, you might even catch a red-suited Santa there.

To get there, take the Orange Freeway to Birch Street, turn east to Flower Hill, 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 Dec. 25. (Map 709, F-7.)

At Yorba Linda's Eastlake Shores development, the manufactured lake makes a wonderful reflecting pool that doubles up the lights and decorations on 120 homes lining the water. You can walk or drive the streets for a view of the sophisticated decor.

Residents also hold a mini boat parade each year, pedaling their decorated, human-powered paddle boats on a one-mile circuit around the lake. This year the boats hit the water at 6:30 p.m. tonight and Sunday. The parade usually lasts about an hour.

To get there, take the Riverside Freeway to Imperial Highway, head north to Esperanza Road, turn east to Fairmont Boulevard north to Pas de las Palomas. Turn east to Village Center Drive and you are on the boundary of Eastlake Shores. Hours are 6 to 10 p.m. through Dec. 31. (Map 740, F-5.)

A second Yorba Linda neighborhood, Windemere Village, features 42 homes adorned with lights and wooden cutout characters. Many houses have themed displays like Candyland and a Scottish Holiday House. The common area features a life-size Nativity scene lit by a North Star. To get there, take Rose Drive (which becomes Tustin Avenue in Orange) to Buena Vista Avenue, and turn east. At Windemere Drive, turn north into the tract. Hours are dusk to 10 p.m. through Dec. 25. (Map 739, H-5.)

The glow in the sky above Placentia probably comes from Rashford Drive, where homes on two long blocks along the boundary of the Alta Vista Golf Course are covered with bright lights. Some feature animated figures and cutouts as well.

To get there, take Rose Drive south out of Yorba Linda, or north from Orangethorpe Avenue in Anaheim, to Alta Vista Street. Turn west on Alta Vista and then north on Central Avenue, which quickly curves and becomes Sue Drive. Rashford Drive is the first right. Hours are dusk to 10 p.m. (Map 739, G-6.)

East Carnation Way in Anaheim Hills offers several dozen brightly lit homes. About half of the homeowners add to their lighting displays with elaborate holiday scenes featuring cutouts of traditional and cartoon characters.

To get there, head east on the Riverside Freeway to Weir Canyon Road and take Weir Canyon south to Monte Vista Road and turn right. Drive past Sycamore Park and take the first left, onto Kennedy Drive. Carnation Way is the first right off Kennedy. Hours dusk until 10 p.m. (Map 741, A-7.)

Central County

Next, tour Orange's Old Towne historic district. The plaza, at Chapman Avenue and Glassell Street, will take you back to a warmer, gentler time with its Santa, snowman and Nativity scene.

Many of the vintage homes throughout the mile-square area are nicely decorated--the grass-roots Old Towne Preservation Assn. awards prizes for the best-decorated homes, and the competition gets a little hotter each year. The perennial best of the show, though, is the 400 block of South Grand Street, where every home lights up.

To get there from the Costa Mesa Freeway, take Chapman Avenue west about a mile to Grand, then turn south and follow the glow to the 400 block.

From the Garden Grove Freeway, take 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 Dec. 25. (Map 799, G-5.)

The 500 block of North Waverly Street is another destination in Orange worth driving to. Every house on the long cul-de-sac is decked in lights, and most feature holiday characters and scenes on the lawns as well.

To get there from the Orange plaza, head east on Chapman for about half a mile to Cambridge Street. Turn north on Cambridge, go another half-mile to Walnut Street and turn east. Waverly is the first left off Walnut. Hours are 5:30 to 10 p.m., through Dec. 25. (Map 799, H-3.)

Tustin's West Main Street, another area of vintage homes built in the late 1800s and early 1900s, also offers a look at Christmas past. A variety of manger scenes and 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.)

Basswood Circle in Tustin boasts decorated parkway trees, rooftop and yard scenes with sleighs, trains and gingerbread men. There's also reindeer and Santa popping down a chimney in addition to houses dripping with icicle lights. Hours are 5:30 to 10 p.m. through Jan. 1. To get there, take Walnut Avenue east to Raintree Lane, 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 continues a tradition the matriarch began more than two decades ago, painstakingly reconstructing the display she built each year in her front yard at 219 E. Warner Ave. More than 500 clay figures the family has collected depict 30 scenes from Christ's life. The display includes miniature waterfalls, handmade wooden houses, a sandy desert and lights.

The multilevel panoramic display covers the width of the frontyard and rises to about 5 feet on a terraced platform. Velardes, who died recently, started building the elaborate display to keep a promise she made as a young mother praying for recovery from a painful illness.

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.)

Now turn up the voltage with a trip to the Dahlia tract in Fountain Valley. The 75-home tract bordered by Heil and Edinger avenues and Brookhurst and Bushard streets has been lighting up Central Orange County skies for years. Lavish decorations, including scores of animated figures and awe-inspiring light displays, lure so many people each year that the Police Department often sets up barricades and only people on foot are allowed into the development in the evenings.

To get there, find Mile Square Regional Park. From the corner of Edinger Avenue and Brookhurst Street, go south on Brookhurst about one-third mile to Thistle Avenue, the entrance to the tract. If the barricades are up, park along Brookhurst or at the park and walk back.

Hours are 5 to 10 p.m., through Dec. 25. (Map 826, D-6 and E-6.)

Neighbors on Foxboro in Irvine's Woodbridge development not only light their houses, but some of them share. Long strands of colored lights cross over the street in several places, linking houses on opposite sides of Foxboro and making a nice canopy for visitors to drive beneath.

To get there from the Santa Ana Freeway, take the Jeffrey Road offramp and head south to Alton Parkway. From the San Diego Freeway, take Jeffrey north to Alton. From either direction, head west on Alton to East Yale Loop, turn left and follow Yale Loop around to Springbrook. Turn right on Springbrook, right again on Summerlake, left on Emerald and right onto Foxboro. Hours are 5:30 to 10 p.m., through Dec. 25. (Map 860, E-6.)

Coastal Orange County

The homes of Huntington Harbour are often professionally decorated, and the displays can be dazzling. The decorations can be viewed by walking or driving the streets and bridges of the neighborhood, which is built on a large inland bay, complete with backyard docks and boats that often sport their lights and displays.

To view it from the water, make reservations for the Philharmonic Cruise of Lights, going on now through Dec. 22. Tours leave at 5:30, 6:30, 7:30 and 8:30 p.m. Tickets are $8.50 for adults Monday through Thursday and $10 Friday through Sunday ($5 for children). Dec. 16 is Family Night, and tickets are $8 for adults and $4 for children. Tickets must be bought in advance, and phone orders are taken at (714) 840-7542. Proceeds benefit the society's school music program.

To get to Huntington Harbour, 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 Dec. 25. (Map 827, A-6 and 7 and B-6 and 7.)

Another Huntington Beach scene is one that offers a nice change of pace: a giant Christmas tree that isn't in a shopping mall. Residents of Tahiti Circle talked for years of decorating the 60-foot star pine that adorns the cul-de-sac. Last year they did it, and this year they are repeating. An illuminated star crowns the tree, and bright strands of purple and white lights cascade down its branches.

To get there, take Pacific Coast Highway to Brookhurst Street and turn north. Head up Brookhurst to Bushard Street, turn left, and take Bushard to Banning Avenue. Turn left on Bushard and then left again onto Malibu Lane. Tahiti Circle is the third right. Hours, dusk until 10 p.m., through Dec. 25. (Map 888, D-4.)

Then there's the Newport Harbor Christmas Boat Parade, which starts Tuesday and runs through Dec. 23. More than 100 bedecked boats cruise the harbor each night beginning at 6:30 p.m. They pass the American Legion Hall about 7:30 p.m. You can get a bleacher seat there for $5 or a seat and dinner (chili, chicken or beef stew) for $10. Proceeds benefit veteran's programs. Tickets are available at the door. Information: (714) 673-5070.

You can also watch the parade from a variety of vantage points along the harbor, but get there early. The crowds gobble up the available waterfront viewing areas pretty quickly each night.

To get there, take Pacific Coast Highway to either Balboa Boulevard or, father south, Jamboree Road. Turn south, toward the ocean, on either street. On Balboa Boulevard, cruise down the Balboa Peninsula until you find a place to stand on the bay side of the long, narrow strip of real estate. On Jamboree, drive down to the intersection with Bayside Drive, park where you can along Bayside and walk across the bridge to Balboa Island. You can view the parade from the bay side of the island. (Map 919, A-1 and 2 through D-1 and 2.)

If you've always wanted to join a boat parade, try the one in Dana Point. The annual Boat Parade of Lights runs tonight and Dec. 20 and 21. Any kind of decorated boat can join, and there is no entry fee. To enter your boat, contact Linda Cognito at Dana Wharf Sport Fishing, (714) 496-5794.

No boat? No problem. The same company takes out a large boat that joins the 50 to 60 others in the 7:30 p.m. parade. You should arrive at 7 p.m. Tickets are $15 for adults, $10 for children under 12. Those who just can't get their sea legs can view the parade from the grassy area on Dana Point Harbor Drive at the back part of the Harbor.

To get to the harbor, take Pacific Coast Highway to Street of the Golden Lantern and turn south, toward the ocean. Street of the Golden Lantern ends at Dana Point Harbor Drive. (Map 971, H-6 and 7.)

Don't miss this farther south along the coast: the entrance to Harbor Ridge, a gated community in the hills above Corona del Mar. The Harbor Ridge Women's Club turns the guardhouse into a Christmas cottage with lights, faux snow and garlands. There's a life-size sleigh with a Santa and his reindeer, several lighted and decorated trees, a train, 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. Hours are dusk until midnight, through Dec. 25. (Map. 889, H-7.)

South County

Meadowbrook Circle in Lake Forest is only aglow for one night, but what a night it will be. On Dec. 22, the neighbors light hundreds of luminaria. The warm glow of the candles flickering inside gold-toned paper bags can melt a Grinch's icy heart.

To get there, take the San Diego or Santa Ana Freeway to Lake Forest Drive and go east on Lake Forest to Rockfield Boulevard. turn right on Rockfield, then left on Ridge Route Drive. Take Ridge Route to Elrond and turn right. Meadowbrook Circle will be the first left off of Elrond. Hours: 6 p.m. until the candles burn out somewhere around 9 p.m. (Map 891, F-5).

Mission Viejo holds a decorating contest each year and a list of the winners, with a map, can be obtained by calling the Mission Viejo Activities Committee at (714) 830-7066.

One of the highlights of the giant planned community's holiday efforts is the Tobarra neighborhood, where almost every house on the half-mile street is covered in lights.

To get to Tobarra, take the Santa Ana Freeway to Alicia Parkway and head east into Mission Viejo on Alicia. After you pass Lake Mission Viejo, turn left on Olympiad Road and then right on Melinda Road. Tobarra is the first left you can make from Melinda. Hours are dusk until 10 p.m. through Dec. 25. (Map 892, E-3.)

Now cruise back out to Olympiad and head south to Mission Viejo's Baja Oso neighborhood, where most of the homeowners deck their lawns and rooftops with lights, cutout figures and other trimmings to make a mini-North Pole.

To get there, drive south on Olympiad. notice that as you pass the intersection with La Paz Road, Olympiad turns into Felipe Road, but don't let that bother you. Just keep driving until Felipe ends in a "T" intersection with Marguerite Parkway. Make a right onto Marguerite and head north for about half a mile. Turn west on Mesilla and you are in Baja Oso. Hours are dusk until 9:30 p.m. through Dec. 25. (Map 922, C-5.)

Just across Interstate 5 Freeway in Laguna Hills is the hilltop community of Nellie Gail Ranch, where scores of lavish homes sport equally lavish holiday trimmings. This is a large development of custom and semi-custom homes, and the best way to see it is to drive along central Nellie Gail Road and duck up and down the streets that branch off of it. It's a good idea to bring along a map of the area, though, because it's a labyrinth.

One of the most spectacular displays in Nellie Gail Ranch is on Mt. Diablo, where one house sports a miniature train going 'round and 'round its circular driveway.

To get to Nellie Gail Road, take the Santa Ana Freeway to Oso Parkway and head east about a quarter of a mile to Cabot Road. Turn right and drive north on Cabot to Nellie Gail Road. Turn left and head up the hill. The Mt. Diablo display can be reached by driving up Nellie Gail Road to Glen Canyon Drive. Turn left on Glen Canyon and then left again on Mt. Diablo. Hours throughout Nellie Gail are 6-10 p.m., through Dec. 25. (Map 922 A-3 through 6 and Map 921 H-5 and 6 and J-3 through 7.)

Finally, get an eyeful at "Candy Cane Lane" in Rancho Santa Margarita. Elves, giant lollipops, candy canes, assorted Santas, snowmen and reindeer line the frontyards on Via Lantana. This year the residents have added a Ferris wheel. Everything is illuminated with thousands of twinkling lights.

For the second year, residents are collecting canned goods and other nonperishable food for people in need. You can add your donation to the collection barrel as you enter the street.

To get there, take the Santa Ana Freeway to the Oso Parkway offramp and go east on Oso to Antonio Parkway. Take Antonio north across Santa Margarita Parkway to Verdea Laguna. Turn right on Verdea Laguna, left on Via Carissa, right on Allyssum and follow it around until it becomes Via Felicia. Then follow Via Felicia to Via Lantana and turn left. Hours are 5-9 p.m. through Dec. 31. (Map 893, C-1.)

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