First-time visitors to the annual “Winter Walk of Light” at Meadowlark Botanical Gardens in Vienna probably feel the way tour participants did upon being shown Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory.
After presenting their tickets at the visitor center, they step into an almost visually overwhelming burst of colorful lights, which adorn everything from trees and statuary to bridges and the park’s lakeside gazebo.
Animal designs feature prominently in the show, and tour hosts encourage families to spot all of them and check their findings off a list.
There’s a beehive with lights moving in an out of it to represent its occupants and another hive perched just out of the reach of a bear standing on its hind legs.
Geese, squirrels, rabbits, foxes and a massive butterfly – perfect for photos with people standing in its center – also populate the hilly, nearly 0.6-mile-long trail.
Christmas trees also dot the landscape, as do oversized lighted mushrooms and flowers. Visitors pass along a path framed by light-covered split-rail fences, then pass through a snaking tunnel of bulbs that continually change color. On the way out, they pass by a soothing section of trees covered in blue lights.
The Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority (NOVA Parks) began operating the display in 2012, said Blythe Russian, park operations superintendent.
Meadowlark Botanical Gardens significantly reduced attendee capacity for the event because of the pandemic, and staff have implemented many safety protocols, she said.
Last year’s festival hosted about 4,000 guests on prime nights, but NOVA Parks cut the maximum this year to 900, Russian said. The agency always has used timed ticketing for the event, and had little difficult adjusting to the more restrictive regimen, she said.
“In a non-COVID year, this would be one of their many holiday traditions,” Russian said. “This year, when there are so few things for families to do safely, they are very thankful that they have the opportunity to be outside, enjoy the ‘Winter Walk of Light’ and be with family in a safe environment.”
Visitors during this winter’s display can buy hot chocolate and pre-made S’mores, but not cook the latter themselves over a fire pit, as in previous years.
NOVA Parks each year supplies new elements for the display and adds on to existing elements, Russian said. This season’s additions include massive lighted mushrooms, “dancing” flowers and an expanded rabbit garden.
The lights belong to NOVA Parks, which works with a contractor to install some of them in the tall trees. There are more than a half-million lights in the show, and the agency begins setting them up at the end of August.
The show runs nightly through Jan. 3. Tickets cost $11.25 to $20, depending on age, and only may be purchased online in advance this year. Many of the prime nights and times are sold out already, but some spots still are available. Visit www.novaparks.com/events/winter-walk-of-lights.
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