Atlanta Botanical Garden offers holiday light show with a difference

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The first indication Atlanta Botanical Garden's "Garden Lights, Holiday Nights" is not your garden-variety Christmas light show comes as soon as you turn in the Midtown attraction's entryway from Piedmont Avenue.

The hot pink, funky fuchsia and electric blue lights illuminating the trees of Storza Woods demand a neck-craning double take.

Clearly, Santa's got a brand new bag.

Opening Nov. 19, "Garden Lights" boasts nearly 1 million energy-efficient LED lights bedecking the 30-acre garden in unusual colors. Surprises greet you as you stroll through this exceptionally artful show, with lights employed differently in different settings.

A galaxy of 72 brilliant red and white stars, dangling from towering trees, greets you as you amble out of the Hardin Visitor Center, the most traditional Christmas display you'll encounter.

If you bear right, you head toward Storza Woods, which looks more like Dr. Seuss' Woods as you drink it in from the treetop height of the Kendeda Canopy Walk. Or bear left at the stars, and an array of crape myrtle trees awaits, wrapped in contrasting twists of tropical blues and greens.

Yet the unquestioned centerpiece beckons up ahead: the Great Lawn, where some 150 fiberglass orbs in three sizes and 9-foot-tall spheres change hues to the beats of classic holiday songs, including Jimmy Durante crooning "Frosty the Snowman" (icy blues and frosty whites) and Burl Ives covering "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" (mainly deep reds).

The tunes and hues change quickly during the 30-minute music loop, making the lawn area a cheery place where visitors are certain to linger while sipping hot chocolate or more potent refreshments.

Just beyond it, the Conservatory calls, with a more subtle show: shimmering pin dots of green light waving from plant leaves. Walk past the 18-foot-tall poinsettia Christmas tree, with white ones weaving through the red ones like garland, and you're soon back outside in the Edible Garden. Here, LED illuminated giant butterflies, praying mantises, dragonflies and bees fly over sunflowers and roses.

The Atlanta Botanical Garden has spent $1 million to launch "Garden Lights, Holiday Nights," anticipating that it will become an intown holiday tradition. The show has been in the works for nearly a decade, waiting on the garden's $55 million, two-phase expansion to be completed last year and for developing technology that would make the large-scale light display possible on low energy consumption.

"When I moved to Atlanta, I realized how little there is here in terms of holiday traditions beyond the Macy's Christmas tree and Pink Pig [ride]," garden Executive Director Mary Pat Matheson said. "We thought we could create a new tradition that connects friends and family in a way that also ties into our mission, which is: Get out of the car and walk, enjoy nature and reconnect."

Indeed, all those lights do not seem to be an end unto themselves but in fact accentuate that you're moving through one of the city's prime green spots, even with Midtown and downtown skyscrapers peeking out at different turns above the rapidly shedding trees.

Drawing visitors to the garden in a season that's typically a slow one was admittedly a motivating factor.

"Attendance doesn't drop off the planet [in winter] but it definitely falls off," allowed Matheson, who expects the attraction adjoining Piedmont Park to draw 300,000 this year, up a bit from the pre-expansion average of 280,000 annually. "We have this beautiful garden and we have to pay to maintain it no matter what season it is. We want people to enjoy the garden in every season."

Garden officials hope to draw at least 25,000 by the show's close on Jan. 7, but Matheson believes attendance of 40,000 is attainable, especially given the fact that the garden has 22,000 household memberships (and members qualify for discounted admission).

"I think within three years, maybe within two, this is going to be our second-busiest two-month period, second only to spring," she said, pointing out that Pennsylvania's Longwood Gardens draws a third of its annual guests during its light show.

The Atlanta garden is pushing the "green" aspect of its LED (light-emitting diodes) lights, pointing out that the 85 miles of strings demand only 300 amps, close to the amount required to power two Atlanta homes a day on average.

But while green energy is certainly trendy, that's hardly the only color visitors will be talking about. Though intentionally light on traditional holiday hues and imagery -- "You can see that almost anywhere, right?" Matheson said -- the light show would seem to boast more dazzling hues than the High Museum of Art.

When it's brought up that the High might have liked to present all that color, Matheson smiles.

"I think they would," she said. "They can't have it, though. It's ours."

Event preview

"Garden Lights, Holiday Nights." Nov. 19 through Jan. 7 at Atlanta Botanical Garden. 5-10 p.m. nightly (except Dec. 24 and 31). Tickets: $18.95, $12.95 ages 3-12. Parking, $5, in the adjoining SAGE parking facility. 1345 Piedmont Ave., Atlanta. 404-876-5859,

More holiday lights

Fantasy in Lights at Callaway Gardens. Take the Jolly Trolly or drive your personal vehicle through the 5-mile light show employing 8 million lights and featuring 14 larger-than-life holiday scenes in a woodland setting. Christmas Village offers 22,000 square feet of shopping and refreshments. Nov. 18 through Dec. 30. $16-$22; $8-$11, children; under 5, free. 60 miles southwest of downtown Atlanta, intersection of Ga. 18/354, Pine Mountain. 1-800-225-5292, www.callaway

Holiday in Lights at Centennial Olympic Park. Thousands of lights illuminate the 21-acre park. Nov. 18 through Jan. 2. Park is open 7 a.m.-11 p.m. Free. Ice skating rink, open Nov. 19 through Jan. 29, is $7 per person plus $2 skate rental for 90 minutes on the ice. Credit cards not accepted at the rink. 4:30-10 p.m. weekdays, 10 a.m.-11 p.m. Saturdays, 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Sundays. 404-223-4412,

Magical Nights of Lights at Lake Lanier Islands Resort. Seven miles of lights illuminate characters and scenery. Carnival rides, pony rides and games, marshmallow roasting offered outside Holiday Village, where shopping and snacks and visits with Santa are available. Open Nov. 18 through Jan. 1. 5-10 p.m. daily (including holidays). Cars (one to nine passengers): Mondays-Thursdays, $40; Fridays-Sundays, $60. Food, lodging packages available. Lake Lanier Islands Resort, 7000 Lanier Islands Parkway, Buford. 1-800-840-5253,

Lights of Life at Life. Millions of light bulbs illuminate more than 100 displays dotting the 1.5-mile drive through Life University campus. Nov. 21 through Dec. 31. 6-10 p.m. Sundays-Thursdays, 6-11 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays. Cars, $5; vans, $10; buses, $20. New this year: Nojoe’s Christmas Circus Under the Stars, presented at 7 and 9 p.m. Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays, Thanksgiving night through New Year’s Day night. $5. Life University, 1269 Barclay Circle, Marietta. 678-331-4334,

Season of Magic in Piedmont Park. Holiday lights decorate the park in this first-year event that opens with a Naughty or Nice caroling parade at 6 p.m. Nov. 20 ($10, $5 under 12). Features horse-drawn carriage rides (5-10 p.m. daily; $20 per individual, $60 groups of 3-5), carousel rides, Legacy Fountain light show, beer garden, arts and crafts and more. Through New Year’s Day. 404-875-7275,

Stone Mountain Christmas. More than 2 million lights illuminate Crossroads village. A dozen-plus shows and events are offered, including new this year the holiday show "Toyrific!" Nightly holiday parade winds through the village, with Snow Angel flying over Crossroads for the finale just before a fireworks display. Open nightly Nov. 12 through Jan. 1 (except Dec. 24-25). $27, adults; $21, children 3-11. Parking pass, $10. Book combo tickets (includes other park attractions) at 770-498-5690.

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