By Beth J. Harpaz
Tony Muia was born and raised in Brooklyn and always loved the Christmas lights of Dyker Heights, an Italian-American neighborhood where proud locals cover their homes in twinkling bulbs and fill their front yards with life-size Santas and Nativity scenes.
Now he makes his living taking busloads of tourists from around the world to see these over-the-top holiday displays, playing Frank Sinatra on the bus and ending the night with a stop for cannolis and hot chocolate.
"Rockefeller Center, forget about it! Because I'm taking you deep in the heart of Brooklyn," he told a bus departing from Manhattan's Union Square on a recent night.
On board for the 10-mile (16 kilometers) trip to Dyker Heights and another Brooklyn neighborhood, Bay Ridge, were 50 visitors from around the world (Australia, Japan, Holland, England, Northern Ireland) and the country (Utah, Texas, California, Louisiana, Missouri, Virginia, Florida, New York and New Jersey).
"Overwhelming! Over the top! All American!" was all Brigit DeBoer from Zeist, Holland, could say after wandering past three-story mansions draped from roof to sidewalk in shimmering lights.
Other displays featured a 14-foot-tall (4 meters) Santa, twinkling snowflakes, moving carousels, animatronic reindeer, candy canes and characters from "The Nutcracker." Some homeowners create a traditional Nativity scene with the Christ child in the manger as their centerpiece, while others take a more whimsical approach, like the man who puts a half-dozen dancing bears on his front lawn, one for each of his grandchildren.
For many tourists, Christmas in New York means the tree at Rockefeller Center, Macy's holiday windows and Radio City's "Christmas Spectacular" show. But those who booked Muia's tour — most of whom came across him online — said they were excited about going to Brooklyn.
"We've done Manhattan," said Robin Green of Fort Pierce, Fla. "We wanted to see something different."
"We have a few houses like this but not so many in one strip. It's incredible," said Julie Morgan of Sydney, Australia. "I've been to Brooklyn before but I would never have found this on my own."
In fact, Brooklyn has lately become a trendy destination for out-of-towners, with Michelin-starred restaurants, boutique hotels and neighborhoods like hipster Williamsburg offering craft beer. But you won't encounter artists in porkpie hats and Converse sneakers on Muia's tour: This is old-school Brooklyn, home for the holidays.
And never mind artisanal concoctions like the Mexican-Japanese tacos found in Brooklyn's hipper spots. Muia takes his tour to the Bella Luna pizzeria for cannolis, a classic cream-filled Italian pastry. At least one visitor, Moe Takeuchi, visiting from Tokyo with her mom, found the cannolis quite exotic; she spent a long time taking pictures of her plate.
Muia, 48, grew up in an Italian-American family in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn, and spent 20 years working in hospitals as a respiratory therapist before switching to the tour business in 2005. He introduces himself by saying: "I'm Tony. I got two younger brothers named Vinnie and Joey. You can't make this stuff up! I'm as authentic as it gets."
His company, called A Slice of Brooklyn, started with a pizza tour and added the Christmas lights tour in 2006. These days, he runs three to four buses a night, bringing thousands of tourists from Manhattan each season to see the lights.
Some homes on the tour still feature the inflatable Santas that have been around for years, while others display characters like Snoopy that were more popular a generation ago. But many residents on blocks where homes can go for $1 million or more hire professional decorators to use the latest in LED technology. On one front lawn, golden lights outlined every inch of manicured topiary, while outside another home, a stately tree was bejeweled in bright red lights from the highest branches to the roots. Professional displays can cost anywhere from a few hundred dollars to $10,000 or more, depending on how elaborate they are.
At one home, a blinking light display was synchronized to the beat of "Jingle Bells" broadcast on a local radio frequency. And at the mansion owned by a man Muia called "Sam the Greek," holiday greetings were illuminated in three languages — English, Italian and Greek, Cyrillic letters and all.
How do homeowners feel about Muia as he tosses out comments like "You can probably see that house from space!" and "That house looks like a dessert!"? Judging from the affectionate hug Muia got from Lucy Spata as he passed her decked-out house, they like the attention.
At Muia's prompting, Spata retells the story of how her neighbors used to complain about the traffic the lights attract. Her response: "I told them to move."
Muia also tells inside stories as he walks along: This mansion was built by a car dealer for his daughter; that homeowner died of cancer and his wife does the lights up in his honor; and this one's married to a Jewish woman, so all the lights are blue instead of more traditional Christmas colors like red, green or gold.
Dale Pollard and his wife of Ogden, Utah, were the only ones on the tour who said their hometown has lights to rival Brooklyn. But one thing they don't have back in Utah, Pollard said, is "a house with blue lights that's Jewish."
More typical was the reaction of Nadia Boyer of Burke, Va.: "My house is going to look really lame when I get back home."
CHRISTMAS LIGHTS & CANNOLI TOUR: Tours last 3½ hours, departing nightly from Manhattan through Dec. 31. Tickets, $55. Advance booking required; tours often sell out.