RICHARDSON — In his 81 years, Joel Occhiuzzo has been a traveling band leader, an Army sergeant, a chef and a car salesman.
But for the past 13 years, he's been best known as "Joel the Trainman."
From Thanksgiving through New Year's Day, his Richardson backyard is aglow with lights when he opens his annual Holiday Express Riding Train from 6 to 10 p.m. each night, offering free rides to children and adults.
But this year, he says, will be his last ride.
"As far as I know, right now, Jan. 1 is the end," Occhiuzzo said. "After that, everything is for sale."
This includes the approximately 132-foot track, about 50,000 Christmas lights, decorations and the wooden seven-car train valued at about $70,000.
In November, Occhiuzzo received notice that his homeowners insurance, which also covered the train, would not be renewed. His new homeowner's policy is about 50 percent more expensive and does not cover the train.
To open this year, he scrambled to purchase event insurance for almost $2,000 to cover the train's 30-day operation.
The expense is on top of an average electric bill of $1,200 and an additional $6,000 he spends to repair, maintain and update the train and outdoor display. He does not charge money for the ride around his yard. When expenses rose three years ago, Occhiuzzo set up a donation box at the entrance.
"I could afford what we were doing, but not once (the insurance) hit," Occhiuzzo said. "You've got to laugh about this, you really do. In the beginning, I cried about it. It choked me up. I'm just trying to do something for kids."
On a recent evening, Occhiuzzo sat perched in a fisherman's swivel chair — his version of a conductor's seat — as he guided the 46-foot-long train around his backyard.
Twinkling Christmas lights and blow-up characters set the backdrop as the wooden locomotive rounded the corner, toting six parents and children in its back sleigh car.
As Occhiuzzo waved to onlookers, a spotlight caught his face, lighting a smile.
"That smile is one of my favorite moments. It never gets old," said his friend, Frances Combiths of Garland.
Occhiuzzo said he never intended for the train to reach its current size, nor did he intend for anyone to ride it.
The original four-car train was to be a display in the yard. It was 6 feet long and constructed to circle the Yaupon holly tree in the center of his yard.
It took more than four minutes to circle the tree.
Now, it takes 45 seconds to circle his entire yard.
"It just went around that little tree. That was it. It was hysterical," said Combiths, whose two sons saw the train and lights from across Duck Creek Linear Park when Occhiuzzo first opened the express.
Combiths' 13-year-old daughter, Rachel, first rode the train when she was 2 years old. Since then, the mother and daughter have been back every year.
"It's just so joyful here," said Rachel Combiths as she took a break from the cold to huddle around a fire in Occhiuzzo's home. "I love seeing the lights, and sometimes Joel lets me drive."
The mother-daughter duo is among a crew of volunteers who routinely help Occhiuzzo drive the train and manage the line of guests each evening. Afterward, they gather in Occhiuzzo's kitchen for a cup of hot chocolate and a slice of cake.
"Joel is such a sweetheart. How could you not want to help?" Frances Combiths said.
Some, such as Ken Southard and John Hamulak, also help Occhiuzzo throughout the year with setup, repairs and storage of the decorations.
The volunteer crew of mechanics and engineers formed five years ago after Southard, a chemist with an interest in mechanics, brought his grandchildren to ride the train.
"I saw there were a lot of areas where some of my friends could help," said Southard, a Richardson resident.
But the display, including the rotating disco ball in the center tree and lighted stars that line the backyard, are from Occhiuzzo's imagination.
His wife, Bebe, said she often wakes in the morning to find her husband's concept drawings covering the kitchen table.
Over the years, the train has built bonds in Occhiuzzo's group of friends. Now they wonder what the train's end could mean for them and Occhiuzzo.
"I worry about Joel and what he's going to do. The guys will come over and have coffee and work on the train. It's like this little retirement club of old guys," Combiths said. "Sure, we'll still come over and visit, but it won't be the same."
Occhiuzzo is looking at other avenues to cover the rising cost. He said he's not hopeless, but he's also realistic.
"It's hard to tell these kids they're not going to have a ride no more," Occhiuzzo said.