CROSSVILLE — Nestled in an out of the way corner, on the outskirts of Cookeville, sits a wondrous playground that has become a staple for Christmas fun in Middle Tennessee. Hidden Hollow offers a unique experience for visitors looking for family oriented entertainment. The main attraction is a drive-thru light show, which operates nightly from Thanksgiving to New Years. LED displays illuminate the park with more than a million individual lights.
Hidden Hollow was built back in the 1970's by retired tool design engineer Arda Lee. Originally, the 82-acre playground was a tobacco, corn and cattle farm owned by Lee's father and uncle. Lee's inspiration for the park was divine revelation – he's said to have had a vision from God telling him to build it. A 52-foot illuminated cross sits atop a chapel overlooking the park and serves as a testimony of Lee's faith. The cross is clearly visible from Interstate 40, providing a landmark for truckers and travelers passing through the night. The chapel also hosts an Easter sunrise service each year.
Lee's favorite time of year was Christmas. He loved the pomp and circumstance associated with the holiday – the lights and music, Santa Claus and nativity scenes – symbolism for all that is good and right in the world. Stepping into his quirky creation is like stepping back into childhood. Classic holiday hits fill the air while flashy scenery delights the eyes. Brightly colored lights sparkle across the surface of the lake as fountain spray shimmers in the foreground of a luminous waterfall. Beside the lake is a swing set that allows you to glide out over the water. There's also mini-golf, a petting zoo and a wishing well that grants magic to the imagination.
The petting zoo actually landed Lee in hot water several years ago. He was arrested by agents of the Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency. It seems you're not allowed to keep wild animals as pets. The case, however, never came to trial. You can still feed the animals in the petting zoo, though now it's filled with only domesticated animals like chickens, ducks, goats and rabbits.
Arda Lee died in 2004 at the age of 88. His death left the park's fate in question when the property went to the auction block a couple of years later. Vince and Amanda Taylor just happened at the auction, though they had no intention of buying anything. As fate would have it, when the bidding started, the couple felt moved to raise their paddle and the property that they had no intention of buying became theirs.
"It's been an adventure ever since," said Amanda.
The couple, along with their two young sons, Skylar and Dalton, have maintained the tradition and the vision established by Arda Lee. Beginning in October, Vince begins the long and arduous task of stringing lights. It's a job that, as he put it, "is never really done." The Taylors are at the park virtually every night from Thanksgiving through New Years. There are always bulbs that need replacing or things that need tweaking. Vince is currently in the process of changing out the bulbs from the old incandescent style to LED bulbs, which saves 98 percent on electricity as well as being much brighter.
Each year the park has a theme for the central display. This year it's a salute to the troops, with a 25 x 18 foot American flag consisting of 1,500 LED lights. The flag is prominently poised over the waterfall and can be seen from virtually everywhere in the park. They also had a display specially made that celebrates Tennessee Tech with flashing purple and gold lights.
The park receives special guests over the holidays. Every Saturday night throughout the season, Santa Claus makes a cameo appearance and is available for pictures from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. In addition, "Mr. Snowman," the park mascot, wanders through to greet children. Bonfires are lit to stave off any chills, though this year the weather has been quite mild and pleasant. There's also a short order grill in case you get hungry.
After Christmas, the park switches gears to celebrate Easter with the largest egg hunt in the Upper Cumberland. They also hold the annual sunrise service in the chapel during this time. Over the summer, the park adds swimming, fishing, paddle boats, barbecues, picnics and camping to the list of available activities. In the fall they have hayrides and haunted houses.
Hidden Hollow offers a festive atmosphere and an opportunity to hang out as a family any time of year. The natural beauty of the park is remarkable and plays host to many weddings, reunions, birthday parties, graduations, cookouts and corporate events. As the sign says: "There never was and probably never will be another Hidden Hollow."