Stars and joy at Longwood Gardens during the 2012 holiday season

Magic is an overused word, especially during the holidays. I think perhaps this because we all seek it so wistfully and yet are also caught up in the prosaic fact of shopping and crowds and miles-long to-do lists. For me, that’s where Longwood Gardens comes in. I’m not sure if the whole place is sprinkled with fairy dust, but it always provides the kind of pure joy that can be elusive during the holidays.

Visiting Longwood during December has been a tradition in my family for many years. Our 2012 visit is already scheduled for the Friday before Christmas. This year, I was fortunate enough to get a preview of what’s in store for us, and it includes both old favorites and new treats. Here’s a peek at what I’m looking forward to sharing with the boys.

The 2012 theme is a starry Christmas, and you’ll find stars everywhere, from the 200 paper stars that decorate the entrance to the garden’s large Conservatory building to the star-shaped flowers that grace many of the decorated trees throughout.

Star-shaped flowers decorate a holiday tree at Longwood Gardens

Please click on photos to see full-size versions.

In honor of Longwood’s founder, Pierre S. du Pont, who loved nothing more than entertaining at the holidays, a 64-foot long table is set awaiting a group of lucky guests.

Would you like to be a holiday guest at this Longwood Gardens Conservatory table?

One of our favorite parts of the Conservatory display is always the room full of children’s holiday trees. Kids from local schools make ornaments in their art classes, this year taking the star theme as their inspiration. We look at each tree carefully and then choose our own personal favorites.

Children's trees in the Longwood Gardens Conservatory

There’s whimsy and beauty pretty much everywhere you look in the Conservatory, no matter what type of plants are being displayed.

Outside, we always enjoy the illuminated trees and fountains. This year there are some new features I can’t wait to share including the Field of Light, which is made up of nearly 7000 glass spheres.

Longwood Garden Field of Light, Photo by Mark Pickthall

Photo by Mark Pickthall

Nearby, the Wildlife Tree (moved this year from its former spot in front of the Pierce-du Pont House) offers a feast for birds and beasts alike with ornaments made of wheat, millet, fruit, nuts, and suet.

Close up of one of the handmade ornaments on the Longwood Garden Wildlife Tree

Photo courtesy of Longwood Gardens

We’ve seen the Garden Railroad many times in the fall; this year it’s making a Christmas run too.

Longwood Gardens Garden Railway making a holiday run

Photo courtesy of Longwood Gardens

Now, I know what you may be thinking – it’s all very well and good to talk about how enchanting this is, but what about the thousands of other people who have the same idea? I’ve included several tips about visiting Longwood at the holidays below, but I’ll share my single biggest tip here: It’s best to plan your holiday visit to Longwood Gardens with kids during non-peak hours. That means going between Monday and Friday, with the exception of December 26 to 31. Not only will you save money if you’re not a member, you’ll avoid the worst of the crowds. And if you are a member, you don’t need a timed ticket if you visit during non-peak times.

Everyone who visits Longwood Gardens on Saturdays or Sundays during the holiday season or plans a visit between December 26 and 31 must have a timed ticket for admission. That includes members, for whom admission is still free, but who must have timed tickets during those days. Timed tickets are available on the Longwood Garden website.

My suggestion if you’re planning to visit the Longwood Garden holiday display with your children is to visit from Monday through Friday either before Christmas or after New Year’s Day. Plan to arrive around 4 p.m. – the lights will already be on and shimmering in the winter twilight.

Visit the Conservatory first – it won’t be crowded yet. By the time you’ve finished your circuit you’ll be plenty warm and ready to plunge into the fully dark and mysterious reaches of the rest of the garden. If your kids are like mine, they will run ahead of you, calling out as the spy new delights at every turn – “Look at the giant snowflake lights!” “I see a blue tree – that’s my favorite color!” “It’s so dark! I love being out in the dark.”

Stop to watch the fountain show, watching the water climb to its musical accompaniment from The Nutcracker and applauding at the end as if the water recognized this reward. Climb into a treehouse together and smile at the cold night from a safe perch. Maybe, if you’re fortunate, there will be a full moon, adding its own allure to the scene.

A full moon adds extra sparkle to holiday lights at Longwood Gardens

No need to use that word, is there? But I’ll say it: Pure holiday magic.

Travel-with-kids tips

  • Children four and under get into Longwood Gardens for free. If your kids are older and you think you’ll visit more than once in a year, consider a family membership, which for a family of four pays for itself in two visits.
  • I hope if goes without saying that dressing in layers is a must (as are hats and gloves for all). It’s warm in the Conservatory and since this is December in Pennsylvania, can be quite cold and windy outside. When my children were younger, we always brought a stroller, even once our kids were old enough to walk most of the way because it made a great place to put everyone’s coats.
  • Longwood Gardens has both a cafeteria and a more formal sit-down restaurant. Although I love and highly recommend the mushroom soup to be found there, both are often very crowded during the holiday season. We usually have a snack before our visit and then go offsite for dinner. Downtown Kennett Square is only minutes away and has several family-friendly restaurants (plus lots of adorable local shops).
  • December 3, 10, and 17 are Members Only days from 5 to 9 p.m.
  • The 2012 Longwood Gardens holiday exhibit ends on January 6, 2013.
  • Like this post? You might also enjoy Welcoming fall at Longwood Gardens.

This post was written as part of my participation in Longwood Garden’s “Star Blogger” program, for which I received tour of the Christmas exhibit and a one-year family membership. This new membership will be tacked onto the one I already have and use! I’m a big supporter of a Longwood and have been for many years, so it thrills me to have a chance to partner with them in this way.

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