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Illuminations delights people watchers, light gazers

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Saturday, Nov. 30, 2013, at 6:29 p.m.
  • Updated Saturday, Nov. 30, 2013, at 10:37 p.m.

If you go

Illuminations

When: 5:30 to 8:30 nightly through Dec. 31 (except for Christmas Eve and Christmas)

Where: Botanica, 701 N. Amidon

How much: $7, $6 for members, $5 for children ages 3 to 12. Tickets can be bought at the door or in advance at QuikTrip stores or online at botanica.org.

Two sets of baby eyes looked up from their snuggly plaid-blanket nest in a double stroller, widening in wonder as white lights flashed, raced and twinkled like stars on an arbor above them.

It was one of many picture-perfect moments during the start of a new Illuminations season at Botanica, where more and more bulbs are added each year to celebrate Christmas – now close to a million. The first weekend of the annual event, which opens the day after Thanksgiving and runs through New Year’s Eve, saw many out-of-towners joining their local friends and family in the gardens to get in the spirit of the holiday season.

The babies – 17-month-old Danica Welch of Colorado Springs and 1-year-old Zachary Jewett of Tabor, Iowa, who were in town visiting Grandma Sara Welch for Thanksgiving – didn’t notice the slight glitches that accompany every opening night, including the fact that only one song – “Circle of Life” from “The Lion King” – played over and over again in the light show they were watching in the meadow of the Downing Children’s Garden.

Nary a grumble could be heard in the festive atmosphere. Instead, Illuminations is a people-watchers’ as well as a light-gazers’ heaven, with many touching moments played out in the midst of diverse family dynamics.

Steve Hershberger sat on a bench and munched on popcorn while watching the light show in the meadow of the main garden – where music from Mannheim Steamroller and Trans-Siberian Orchestra plays. Hershberger had sung carols earlier in the evening indoors with the Wichita Choral Society. Live music is scheduled for 6:30 and 7:30 each night of Illuminations in Botanica’s main building, and most nights at the same times in the amphitheater in the children’s garden.

“This gives people a chance to slow down,” Hershberger said as he watched the crowd stop to watch the light show. He found it a stark contrast to other forms of current-day entertainment. For example, he had found blue lights forming a stream under a bridge in the butterfly garden particularly memorable. But you have to look for such touches, he said. “You have to let your eyes find it, whereas in … movies, it tells you what you see.”

The poignant strains of “Silent Night” compelled Gwen Warwick and her 9-year-old daughter, Emma, to do a ballet dance on the grass. It looked like they had practiced.

“In the living room,” Warwick said, laughing. She said it had been a few years since she had brought her her children to Illuminations. “It seems like it’s more kid-friendly,” she said. “My kids are more engaged.”

Just standing in the intense glow of the blue LED lights in the Monster Woods of the children’s garden is enough to chase any SAD away. And the Project Beauty Shakespeare Garden is enchanted with a green glimmering on the trees, on the people passing through, and even on a bust of the Bard himself. (Not to ruin the magic, but it’s the work of Starfield Projectors.)

If there are more lights at Illuminations this year, there are also more photographers. It was impossible not to walk into the path of someone recording the light shows, and families gathered together for portraits under lighted trees.

Richard Mendoza was focusing his lens on new lighted flowers in the wildflower meadow – which still smelled, if the breeze was just right, like summer. Mendoza had taken photos of Botanica by day before, but had never been to Illuminations. He was sharing the joy with a friend visiting from Sweden, on the day before she was to return to her home country. His friend, Ann Lindstrom, said there was nothing like this back home.

“We’re pretty blown away,” Mendoza said. “Flabbergasted.”

Some people wore their own light shows. Botanica volunteer Linda Ruzich, who had been working on stringing lights on structures and trees since September, wore sunglasses atop her head that pulsed with purple light. John Parsons of Derby bought necklaces of flashing lights in the Botanica gift shop for his grandchildren. Addyson Davis-Ash, 8, and Briella Steventon, 3, were not going to get lost with their flashing lights, the family agreed.

Homemade candy, popcorn, s’mores and other snacks are available for purchase in different spots of the gardens and indoors.

“McKenzie, you gotta get a picture of this!” Kimbra Downey of Kansas City yelled at her niece as they approached the new funky-art tree, wrapped in bright colored lights and hanging with lanterns and even a chandelier.

Downey and her mother, LaVina Blake of Bella Vista, Ark., were in town to visit Kimbra’s cousin LaVina Blake for Thanksgiving, and even the locals were at Illuminations for the first time. They all agreed that it was probably the beginning of a new tradition.

Not all the new features at Illuminations involved lights. A Snowflake Lounge on the pavilion was sheltered from the wind, and drinks hot and cold, alcohol and non, are for sale. “The bar I did notice. Kinda sweet,” said Kevin Cave, one of the volunteer elves who helps keep the chimenea fires burning throughout the gardens for warmth. Heat lamps also can be found, along with a few indoor venues for warming up and snacking on homemade candy and other treats.

Cave didn’t need to linger by the fires, though. Watching the crowd was enough.

“It’s just a bunch of people coming together. It’s heart-warming.”

Reach Annie Calovich at 316-268-6596 or acalovich@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @anniecalovich.

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