Every year our family enjoys various holiday exhibits through the Chicago area, but visiting Wonderland Express at the Chicago Botanic Garden is one of the more unique experiences. Opportunities abound throughout the city for family merriment, from the Christkindlmarket to the ZooLights festival at the Lincoln Park Zoo, but traveling further afield brings unexpected holiday delight.
Visiting Wonderland Express at the Chicago Botanic Garden
The Chicago Botanic Garden is located in Glencoe, approximately 30 minutes north of downtown Chicago, and accessible by car. Wonderland Express is extremely popular, and your best bet is to reserve your tickets in advance on the Chicago Botanic Garden’s website. Parking is an additional $20 per car (discounted if you are a member or have a coupon code). If you are visiting at night during the holiday season, it is recommended to have tickets in hand both for the event and parking. Tickets are time stamped, so if you have a ticket for 5:45, be sure to give yourself extra time for arriving at the gardens, parking, and walking to the indoor exhibit (approximately 10 minutes).
Layout of the Exhibit
Once you have followed the signs through the main hall, you will be directed outside, and then around the corner to the Wonderland Express. Children are given a bingo card they can use as a scavenger hunt throughout the exhibit. (Our kids enjoyed this, but they ran ahead looking for clues, not good when it is very crowded). Inside the hall, the display is divided into sections: a family photo section with succulent holiday trees and other backdrops they recommend for family pictures, the Wonderland Express (the main highlight of the exhibit, model trains traveling through the monuments of Chicago created out of natural plants and materials), a long hall with a table displaying an additional train track and small gift shop, a movie room with the story of Wonderland Express, and an arts and crafts room where children can create arts and crafts. Children are engaged from beginning to end. Not only are they learning about plants and flowers, but they also learn about building, and putting creativity and imagination to work.
What to Expect
The highlight of the exhibit is the Wonderland Express, a 10,000 square foot space featuring trains meandering through Chicago in miniature, maneuvering over bridges, on overhead trestles, under waterfalls, and through the city. The buildings and backdrops are created from all natural materials including: gourds, acorns, pinecones, miniature trees, seeds, pods, and grasses. It seems as though every famous Chicago landmark had been recreated, from Soldier Field (where the Chicago Bears play) to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House to Millennium Park and the Bean. Lights are strung throughout the trees and plants, making everything festive. While strolling along, snow falls from the ceiling, adding to the holiday atmosphere. Children enjoy locating the various buildings on their bingo cards and identifying the Chicago monuments they know and love.
After passing through the main hall, there are opportunities for wonderful holiday photos. There are staged photo backgrounds along the long train table (after you pass through the Wonderland Express) that are perfect for catching those special moments.
There’s also a short video about the creation of Wonderland Express. The amount of time and planning that goes into this exhibit is impressive. Plants are ordered well in advance so they can start building the framework during the summer. When they begin to build the Wonderland Express, the framing of the train track begins first, while other people work to create the three dimensional background on the walls and tables. All of the trains run simultaneously and are remotely controlled by train engineers that stroll unobtrusively in the background. This short film is informative and gives a better understanding of all the work that goes into creating this magnificent display.
At night the park comes alive with over 750,000 lights displayed throughout the grounds. If you can find an evening with nice weather, strolling through the grounds is a beautiful way to celebrate the holiday season with your family.
On certain days and weekends, Wonderland Express offers special events (separate tickets need to be purchased). These include a breakfast with Santa, hot cocoa with Mrs. Claus, ice sculpting, carolers, and concerts. Check the schedule for times and be sure to sign up early because these will sell out quickly.
If you have a child who loves trains, this is a must see. Even if your children are not into trains, this is a special event for families to come together and see something truly unique in the Chicago area.