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500,000 lights turn Longwood Gardens into a Christmas wonderland; here's how it looks [photos, video]

Icy white and blue supernova lights dangle over a long path.

The glow from orange lanterns reflects on the surface of a lake.

A tunnel of twinkling lights curves as far as the eye can see.

 Half a million lights shine at Longwood Gardens through Jan. 9. Indoors, thousands of poinsettias and tropical plants bloom. A fire and ice theme ties it all together.

Usually, the lighting team aims to change three or four of the major outdoor elements to keep things fresh for repeat visitors and to match the annual theme, says Troy Sellers, outdoor display landscapes manager. With half of Longwood Gardens’ indoor conservatory missing this holiday season, that was a good reason for even more change.

The conservatory’s part of a huge construction project that will transform the space when it opens in fall 2024.

Emphasizing outdoor lights also is a way to plan ahead during an unpredictable pandemic, Sellers says.

A year-round project

The Christmas experience is such a large endeavor, everyone from staff to volunteers, lends a hand. Sellers leads the group that focuses on outdoor lights.

To come up with such an expansive holiday display, the plan’s laid out by early March. It’s a balancing act to create wow moments with space in between, Sellers says. They balance lights and landscapes. They add lights for people to walk underneath. They look for places to reflect lights in water.

On rainy days over the summer months, staff and volunteers work on the natural decorations.

Prepping and labeling string after string of lights is a year-round task.

By mid-August, arborists start wrapping trees with lights.

Fire and Ice

To fit this year’s fire and ice theme, visitors will see floating luminaries and fire pits as well as lights dangling like icicles.

Some displays have both fire and ice. Lights on a maple tree change from reds to blues. A tunnel of lights, stretched out even longer this year, goes from a color palette Sellers calls “galaxy,” to one that’s flaming and then fades into a rainbow.

Indoors, the exhibition hall looks like a scene from “Frozen” with icicles above and below. A 21-foot tree dripping with silver ornaments slowly spins in the spotlight.

A 22-foot tree in the East Conservatory glows with red, orange and amber ornaments amid many poinsettias, cyclamens, amaryllis and more.

Longwood Gardens was named the country’s top botanical garden for holiday lights in USA Today’s 10Best contest four times.

Pandemic changes

The du Ponts started the holiday tradition in 1921 welcoming families of their employees. The festivities opened to the public in 1957. Through 1984, visitors saw the lights from their cars and then the decorations moved onto the garden grounds.

During Sellers’ 26 years at Longwood, the lit areas expanded into a loop that now stretches to the meadow garden and back to the main fountain garden. There are 400 acres for people to spread out.

“That just goes kind of hand in hand with where people’s minds are now,” says Abbey Gau, marketing and communications specialist. “They want to be outside and we have the space.”

Still, there are a few narrow paths outside. For example, one path runs close to the Italian Water Garden. Sellers’ team hung giant stars in the trees lining a wider adjacent road to draw people from the narrow path.

And while supply chain issues have created problems across industries, that hasn’t been an issue here. Orders are placed seasons ahead, Sellers says. And structures from fire pits to tree stands are made by the gardens’ team of tradesmen and carpenters.

Christmas favorites

This is the third holiday season for Longwood’s newly renovated fountain garden. The lights there are not new but still one of Sellers’ favorites. The central overlook to the fountains is off-limits because of construction, but the lights are hard to miss.

Towers of lights mirror the height and motion of the fountain’s jets in color, not water.

“Some of the scenes look like actual water and you know, we’ve had people think it was water,” he says.

Another favorite place to take in the lights is at the Italian Water Garden. Most people look out to the lit trees in the garden. Turn around to see the flickering luminarias on the large lake.

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