Insider’s Guide to Wonderland Express at Chicago Botanic Garden

When you need to escape the holiday madness (enough with the shopping and over-scheduling), look to the Chicago Botanic Garden. At the Lake Cook Road entrance, you’ll see tall trees wrapped in holiday lights (more than 750,000 LEDs are used in our seasonal displays). And when you look across the North Lake, you’ll see glowing, colorful spheres — your first clues that something special awaits.

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Come join the fun at Wonderland Express, a family-friendly tradition featuring illuminated landscapes, model trains and special events. In Regenstein Center, you’ll find a festive display of unusual poinsettias, topiaries, and more — the perfect backdrop for the highlights to come. (When was the last time you saw indoor snow?) More fun awaits kids of all ages in a 10,000-square-foot holiday-themed exhibition. Model trains wind over bridges, under trestles and past waterfalls on their way through a magical landscape with more than 80 mini-replicas of Chicago-area landmarks such as the Navy Pier Ferris wheel and Cloud Gate (the “Bean”). In a signature Garden touch, everything along the tracks is handcrafted from natural materials such as leaves, bark and moss.

Wonderland Express runs Nov. 27 through Jan. 3, with the exception of Christmas Day; check the website for hours. Buy tickets online or at the Visitor Center.

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Here are our insider’s tips for Wonderland Express:

  • Look for new additions to the model train exhibition (the Maggie Daley Park Ice Ribbon in Chicago and Writers Theatre’s new building in Glencoe), along with visitor favorites and the corpse flowers Spike and Alice the Amorphophallus.
  • Don’t be shy about catching the indoor snow on your tongue (it’s mostly water, plus a bit of vegetable oil).
  • Warm up in the Regenstein Center’s greenhouses (and see how many hidden topiary animals the kids can spot) or stop by the Caboose Café, starting Dec. 22, for hot chocolate.
  • Round up the family for a complimentary photo session from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 5, and Sunday, Dec. 13, in the West Greenhouse Gallery. Photos will be printed on the spot, thanks to the generous support of NorthShore University HealthSystem.
  • Plan ahead and save up to 30 percent off Wonderland Express with a Winter Family Fun Pack.
  • Snap up a one-of-a-kind wreath, handmade by Garden employees, in the Greenhouse Gallery (pick-up begins Tuesday, Jan. 5). Or for a unique holiday gift, stop by the Holiday Market for seasonal produce, handmade pottery, locally made jams, and more from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Sunday, Dec. 6, in Burnstein Hall.
  • Join in the fa-la-la-la-la-ing when carolers sing in the season from 10 a.m. to noon on Nov. 27 to 29, and Dec. 5. Mark your calendar for special events such as the Hanukkah Concert; fee applies.

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