It's Christmastime at Hogwarts — at least in this Austin family's front yard
On Hopeland Drive in Southwest Austin’s Circle C neighborhood, it’s Christmastime at Hogwarts, and the Yule Ball is in full swing. Snow-covered evergreens surround the school of witchcraft and wizardry. There’s a dragon, a Patronus and thousands and thousands of lights.
Joel Pace, an attorney in Austin, is the mastermind behind the display. Each October, he creates a Harry Potter-themed scene in his front yard and invites the public to come see it — and leave a donation for one of the charities he supports, if they can.
“This display has turned into kind of a neighborhood tradition now at this point,” Pace said. “Or annoyance. I'm not sure if my neighbors just lie to me and don't tell me the truth. But it's a lot of fun.”
The project started small in 2016, with just a few floating candles set up near the porch for Halloween. The family was planning to do something similar again in 2017 when Pace’s wife, Amanda, was diagnosed with breast cancer. As she was recovering from surgeries, she asked if they could do something bigger for Halloween that year. So, Pace built a replica of the flying car from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.
“She liked that, and she goes, 'Let's build something else,' and it just kind of got out of hand as a project to make her feel better and distract her from her cancer recovery,” Pace said.
The next year, they decided to go even bigger and built a replica of Diagon Alley — a shopping district for wizards in the Harry Potter universe — up their driveway, so visitors could walk through it on Halloween.
“We had just thousands of people show up and had a great time,” Pace said. So, the family kept the tradition going.
But when the pandemic hit last year, Pace pivoted and made an exhibit people could view from the safety of their cars. Since the display didn’t take up too much space or cover parts of the street, he decided to keep it up through Christmas, too.
“Last year was the first year we've ever done Christmas, and actually, I think it's become as popular, if not more popular, than Halloween,” he said.
Pace continued the tradition this year, adapting the Halloween display for Christmas. The theme this year is the Yule Ball, a formal Christmas dance that takes place in the fourth book of the series. Out of large foam boards, Pace constructed Hogwarts’ great hall, the marble staircase tower and the astronomy building. To get the details and scaling right, he looked at stills from the movie and perused his sons’ Lego collection.
“My son has every version of the Hogwarts castle that Lego has ever put out,” Pace said. “And so I would stare at those endlessly trying to figure out scale and size and which buildings I wanted to build.”
About 30 Christmas trees surround the structures, many of which were donated by neighbors, and star-shaped lights dangle from tree branches above. A light show synchronized to a Christmas playlist Pace put together plays throughout the evenings. Overall, Pace guesses there are about 10,000 light bulbs in the display.
There are also some “easter eggs” Harry Potter fans might notice — a lit up Hippogriff, for example.
“My favorite part is actually the very top of the astronomy tower,” Pace said. ”I had a friend of mine who helps me with the display actually find the original blueprints for the movie set when they built the astronomy tower. And so that's the one that is the most accurate as far as size, scale and dimensions.”
The details are not lost on longtime Harry Potter fans, like Monica Cooke. On a recent Monday night, she drove up with her four sons to see the house. The family used to live in the neighborhood but recently moved to Kyle.
“But because we love it so much, we made a special trip up here to see it,” Cooke said. “We are very big Harry Potter fans and this is amazing. … Every year we like to see what new stuff he’s done.”
Pace said his goal is to spread joy to people during the holiday season, but he’s also using his platform to raise money for charity. At the front of the project, signs are set up encouraging people to donate (cash, Venmo and GoFundMe donations are all welcome). The family donates the money to Foster Angels of Central Texas, Variety-The Children’s Charity of Texas, and ZACH Theatre.
“I don't do this for money,” Pace said. “I do it because I love the holidays, and I love giving back to these kids, these charities and our neighborhood and our town. And it's very easy during the pandemic to forget about that and just only focus on yourself, which is natural. But, you know, we need a charitable heart and charitable giving to make a community strong.”
The light shows run from 6 to 9 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays and 6 to 8 p.m. on weekdays. Find directions and more information on the Facebook page.