Santa Rosa family featured on ‘The Great Christmas Light Fight’

The Santa Rosa display opens to visitors Dec. 11.|

Local fans of “The Great Christmas Light Fight” may be familiar with one of the ABC show’s most recent winners.

For about 35 years, the Berndt family of Santa Rosa has decorated their yard with an elaborate railroad-themed holiday display. Now they’re celebrating their victory on “The Great Christmas Light Fight,” a reality TV competition that judges four holiday displays in one state each episode.

Tim Berndt, his fiancee, Ann Willis, and their family won $50,000 for their decorations at the home at 4461 Drury Lane, which features a life-sized train circling a railroad, a Ferris wheel, cookie and snow globe factories, and a toy claw.

Each component of the family’s “North Pole Express” is handmade and interactive.

Berndt created the snow globe factory using a treadmill as a conveyor belt. The cookie factory, which operates like a vending machine, is stocked with hundreds of cookies for visitors. The mechanical toy claw, similar to a claw machine at an arcade, scoops up free toys for children who don’t mind waiting in line for the attraction.

“Well, what I enjoy is creating things for the kids to enjoy,” Berndt said. “There’s nothing better than the kids running around having a good time, and hopefully it’s a memory for them when they get older.”

Berndt, who owned a steel fabrication shop for about 40 years, first began constructing the display in 1986 with a train modeled after a favorite childhood toy. He and his late wife, Elizabeth, slowly added to the decorations every year at their former home on North Street.

They continued the tradition when they moved to Drury Lane, and Berndt leaves the display in his yard year-round but waits until the holiday season to add the lights.

“It gets to the point where it’s all in the detailing,” he said.

The mechanical components impressed judge Carter Oosterhouse, who told ABC7 that the display had “some of the most creative DIY moments we’ve ever seen.”

“The Great Christmas Light Fight” first reached out to Berndt and Willis about appearing on the show in 2019. The couple is not sure how the show discovered their display, but suspects they may have come across it on the California Christmas Lights website.

Filming started the following year.

The pandemic added a layer of stress to being on camera. The family was tested for COVID-19 several times, and everyone was required to wear masks in between takes.

“They were there for two days filming from 3 to 1 o’ clock in the morning,” Berndt said. “And that was for 12 minutes of fame.”

The family did not know they had won until the TV show reached out months later to shoot the house for promos and commercials.

Instead, they were greeted by Oosterhouse, who told them they were the recipients of the $50,000 prize, which Berndt and Willis plan to split among family members who help them set up every year.

“All of us were saying there’s no way in hell we won,” Willis said.

The couple watched the episode with family and friends for the first time Monday when it premiered.

“It was cool watching ourselves, but still, we’re no TV stars,” Berndt said.

This year, the display opens to visitors on Dec. 11. Residents can stop by any time between 6:30 to 9:30 p.m., but Berndt warns that the toy claw only runs from 7 to 9 p.m.

They pay for the display out of pocket, but are collecting donations for the American Cancer Society in honor of Elizabeth, who died of ovarian cancer in 2010.

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