The first ticket holders for opening night of the inaugural Winter WonderLights at UGA’s State Botanical Garden of Georgia began trickling in as the setting sun cast a pink glow across the sky and the holiday lights began to twinkle.
Leara Rhodes, a retired associate professor from the UGA Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication, was among the first through the entrance.
“I’m a child at heart when it comes to lights,” said Rhodes, who attended the opening night event with family. “It’s just fabulous. We needed something like this in Athens.”
Presented by the UGA Office of the President, the show features nearly a million lights in dazzling displays. Over the next few hours almost 400 guests walked or used wheelchairs, scooters and strollers to cover the fully accessible half-mile trail, some stopping to make s’mores over an open fire pit or enjoy hot chocolate made by Athens’ own Condor Chocolates and beverages supplied by Trumps Catering.
Stacy Stephens took advantage of the holiday scene to bring her family—with a professional photographer—to the garden to take holiday pictures. She had seen this done at the Atlanta Botanical Garden and as a UGA alumna, wanted to remember the moment with husband Carey and sons Bo, 16, and Hank, 14.
“The spot we think was the best for photos was at the very end of the gazebo up top, looking back over the trees,” Stephens said.
Stephens says she plans to bring her mother, who lives in Valdosta, to Winter WonderLights in December when she comes to Athens later in December. The boys might visit again too.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if they came back with their friends,” she said.
More than two years in the making, the display was designed to connect visitors to the garden and nature in a unique way, while also providing a new seasonal experience in Athens. Proceeds from ticket sales, parking and merchandise will go back into the garden, supporting educational and conservation programs. With the exception of special events, like Winter WonderLights, annual festivals, classes, camps and special programs, entrance to the State Botanical Garden of Georgia, a UGA Public Service and Outreach unit, is free.
“This first year would never have been possible without the overwhelming support and presenting sponsorship from President Jere Morehead,” said Jennifer Frum, vice president for UGA Public Service and Outreach.
“The garden staff and volunteers deserve credit for the long hours they’ve put in, and will continue to put in, to make this a success,” Frum said.
Designed by Koons Environmental Design in Athens, the display took three months and 50 workers from CloverLeaf Group and College Pro Landscaping to install. Highlights include 28 illuminated cone trees, including a 40-foot-tall center tree; a multicolored light tunnel made with 50,000 twinkling lights, a winter wonderland scene with 83 shining snowflakes; and “creatures stirring,” including a unicorn, polar bear, an elephant, a giraffe, a deer, a cardinal, a bluebird and a penguin fashioned by local artists out of metal frames and scores of lights.
“We look forward to making this a marquee event for Athens-Clarke County and surrounding communities, with new displays and added attractions to keep visitors coming back,” said Jenny Cruse Sanders, director of the UGA State Botanical Garden. “This is an opportunity for the public to see the garden through a different lens.”
Displays in brilliant colors mimic the living plants throughout the garden, including the cat tails along the path to the cone tree forest. Lasers project running red and green lights onto live bushes and trees, giving the appearance of insects scurrying along the limbs. Throughout the route, signs educate visitors about such things as the origins of cocoa, nighttime pollinators, winter nesting habitats for birds, cone trees or conifers, and winter gardening.
The illuminated animals were a big attraction for the younger children, who could stand nearly eye-to-eye with the penguin. But the real hit was the s’more station.
Lyndsey and Patrick Salmon, their three daughters—Elyse, 9, Adeline, 8, and Lillian, 4—and Lyndsey’s mother, Judith, gathered around the fire pit to toast marshmallows. Lillian snuggled next to her grandmother to eat her s’more, the melted marshmallow sticking to her mouth.
“It’s beautiful,” Lyndsey Salmon said. “The kids are really enjoying the s’mores.”
Condor Chocolates’ Winter Wonderbars, made exclusively for Winter WonderLights, and other treats are sold in the Callaway Visitor Center, which is transformed nightly into a festive market. Winter WonderLights commemorative T-shirts, ornaments and coffee mugs are for sale, as well as other offerings from the garden gift shop.
Winter WonderLights will run a total of 32 nights from Dec.1 through Jan. 9, 2022, with 30-minute timeslots available from 5:30-9 p.m. Tickets are $15 per person, free for children 3 and under. Members of Friends of the Garden receive a 10% discount, as will groups of 20 or more people. Tickets are only available online at wonderlights.uga.edu.
In addition to the UGA Office of the President, Winter WonderLights sponsors include Friends of the State Botanical Garden of Georgia, Trumps Catering, Synovus, Condor Chocolates, Barron’s Rental Center, Westminster Christian Academy and members of the community.
The botanical garden is located approximately 70 miles east of Atlanta, at 2450 S. Milledge Ave., Athens, Georgia. Free parking is available at two nearby, off-site UGA lots, with free shuttle service to the light show. VIP parking at the garden is also available for purchase alongside the tickets.