Leisure Features

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

We’ve always found ways to brighten and warm up the darkest, coldest days of the year with festive traditions. With the uncertainty of the pandemic, those special moments of joy and community will mean more this year than ever before. T&S has a behind-the-scenes look at how two local holiday events are keeping the season merry and bright while ensuring St. Louisans stay healthy and safe.

garden glow
The Missouri Botanical Garden begins planning Garden Glow in February, following six weeks dismantling the previous year’s holiday light displays. Jay Blair, the garden’s head of events, says spring is spent coming up with new ideas and determining what items need refurbishment, and summer is focused on preparing everything for installation, which starts in September. Setting up approximately 1,125,000 lights typically takes 800 hours over 10 weeks. “Garden Glow is a yearlong process that never really ends,” he notes.

A major part of the planning process is determining what installations to keep and which to replace. “There are traditional favorites that people look forward to every year, but we still want to keep the event fresh,” Blair notes. He explains that various factors go into determining which exhibits to retire. The garden checks social media to see what photos are being shared and talks with guests about their favorite elements. Maintenance also plays a role. “It’s better to add a new installation if continued refurbishment is going to cost more,” he says.

Garden Glow usually has at least two new installations each year, and ones from previous events often are moved or rearranged, making for a new experience every winter. This year due to the pandemic, things will function a little differently, but Blair says guests can still look forward to enjoying the holiday tradition safely. “In the spring, our planning process was thrown off, and at times, we weren’t even sure we’d get to have the event,” he notes. To make the beloved experience possible, the botanical garden adjusted its installation process to allow for social distancing.

With visitor safety a priority, the event’s high-touch and interactive areas were rethought. Capacity also had to be reduced, but the event will be open for more nights to offset the change. While some installations won’t be possible, Blair says there are new elements for guests to look forward to, including a new snowflake entryway and the return of the projection show. “The biggest changes we’ve made are to ensure that we can keep people safe,” he notes. “But you can still see your favorites this holiday season.”

winter wonderland in tilles park
St. Louisans always have had choices for how to experience Winter Wonderland in Tilles Park, and this year, those options are more important than ever. While the walking portion of the event has been limited, carriage and vehicle tours allow visitors to safely enjoy the festive tradition. “It’s the ideal year to go through in your vehicle,” says Maggie Martin, recreation events coordinator for St. Louis County Parks. “It’s a great socially distanced way to enjoy the lights and holiday season.”

Martin estimates that the expansive exhibit features close to 2 million lights in more than 80 displays. “No one’s really tried counting,” she jokes. Planning for Winter Wonderland begins in January, and a map of the year’s scenes is completed by the end of the month. Installation usually begins the first week of October, and the event is ready for the public the week before Thanksgiving. This year to keep workers safe, set-up began after Labor Day. “Instead of working as a whole team, we’ve divided into smaller pods,” Martin explains. “It allows us to social distance and limits potential exposure.”

Each year, the event offers a unique experience. While some favorite displays return annually, Martin says elements often are moved and reimagined. “We have a lake made out of lights every year, but we always try to do something different with the installation,” she notes. “One year we had ice skaters on it, and another featured fish jumping from it. We also try to incorporate big things that are happening in the city. In the past, we’ve had sports displays for the Blues and Cardinals.” Nature also plays a part in determining which installations stay. She recalls that high winds have taken certain pieces out of commission in the past.

Guests can look forward to a lot of new installations for 2020. Last year, St. Louis County Parks acquired several pieces that have yet to make their debut. “There will be dozens of new displays incorporated in this year’s Winter Wonderland,” Martin says. “We’re excited to share a spectacular holiday experience with people.”

Garden Glow photo: Ning He
Winter Wonderland photo courtesy of St. Louis County Parks

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