NEW YORK (AP) — 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."