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ARKANSAS SIGHTSEEING: Garvan Woodland Gardens puts on Wonderland, a daytime holiday display

by Jack Schnedler | November 16, 2021 at 7:01 a.m.
Hanging spheres brighten one of Garvan Woodland Gardens’ decorated trails. (Special to the Democrat-Gazette/Marcia Schnedler)

HOT SPRINGS — Necessity was a mother of invention during last year's Christmas season at Garvan Woodland Gardens, which adapted to pandemic concerns by switching its perennially thronged after-dark show of holiday lights to daytime.

Daylight hours make it easier to manage social distancing and other precautions during the touring, which takes place at Garvan almost entirely on foot. That contrasts with the drive-thru setups that keep visitors in their vehicles at other such year-end extravaganzas in Arkansas.

Creating a sparkling light show while the sun is shining may seem a challenge. But Garvan's staff managed the feat in 2020, thanks in part to the help of 48 interior-design students from the Fay Jones School of Architecture and Design at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville. The 210-acre botanical gardens, on a peninsula jutting into Lake Hamilton, operate as a department of that school.

The lighted decorations still shone in daylight, drawing enough pleased paying customers that 2021's encore will start Saturday and run through Dec. 31. This year's event has a fresh name: Wonderland.

  photo  A jumbo mushroom adds a fairy-tale aura to Garvan Woodland Gardens’ Wonderland. (Special to the Democrat-Gazette/Marcia Schnedler)
"Due to the lingering effects of covid-19, we want to ensure the safety and health of all our guests," announced Bob Bledsoe, executive director of the botanical gardens on the southern fringe of Hot Springs. "Because of our inability to receive necessary infrastructure items to guarantee the safety of guests and staff, the decision was made to do a day show again this year."

Wonderland will feature nine main areas of lighted displays with distinctive holiday-focused themes. Some are recycled favorites from last year, including illuminated mushrooms, the pavilion snow globes and James the Train. Others, among them an iridescent jewel tree, are new to freshen the experience for 2021 visitors.

Along with the multitudinous lights, Wonderland is offering programs such as concerts, tea parties, a daily scavenger hunt, a new event called Reindeer Games and a number of holiday workshops. The activities are spelled out on the gardens' website.

Reindeer Games is scheduled for 1-3 p.m. in Garvan Pavilion on Nov. 22 and Nov. 23, as well as Dec. 21-22. On hand will be live reindeer for photos and feeding, along with cookies and ornaments to decorate, plus Santa Claus and his wife.

  photo  Various locations at Garvan Woodland Gardens are decorated with lighted Christmas trees. (Special to the Democrat-Gazette/Marcia Schnedler)
As was true last year, there is a fitness benefit for visitors admitted during daylight hours who enjoy bracing strolls: The entire 210 acres of the grounds will be open. Visitors can walk all five miles of the trails, while only a mile or so had been accessible during evening visits. Among seasonal beauties on view are likely to be blooming camellia.

One path leads to a year-round attraction favored by youngsters — Evans Tree House, opened in 2018 in the Evans Children's Adventure Garden. A year ago, there were sometimes socially distanced lines of families waiting to enter and explore the 600 square feet of the three-level learning space.

Near the gardens' entrance, the Chipmunk Cafe will be open for lunch and snacks from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Next to it is Sugg Model Train Garden, where several engines circling the tracks pull cars decorated with holiday touches — yet another reason to be jolly.


  • What: A daytime version of a popular holiday display at Garvan Woodland Gardens.
  • Where: 550 Arkridge Road, Hot Springs.
  • When: 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday through Dec. 31, except Thanksgiving and Christmas days.
  • Admission: $15 for adults, $5 for children 4-12 and for leashed dogs; free for youngsters 3 and under. No online or advance sales. Last tickets sold at 5:30 p.m.
  • Information: (501) 262-9300;

Reindeer Games

  • What: Live reindeer available for photos and feedings along with other activities.
  • Where: Garvan Pavilion, Garvan Woodland Gardens.
  • When: 1-3 p.m.; Nov. 22-23; Dec. 21-22
  • Admission: Games plus Gardens tickets $65, $50 for Garvan members.
  • Reservations required: (501) 262-9300.


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