http://www.chicagotribune.com/entertainment/museums/ct-ent-1117-holiday-lights-preview-20161116-story.html

2016 holiday lights guide: Morton Arboretum flips the switch early
By Steve Johnson

What is it about lights displays and the wintertime holidays?

Is it the longer nights leading us to covet a little extra brightness, even if it's from a bulb attached to wire?

Is it the tradition of it, packing the kids and their grandparents into the car and heading to a nature park or a magnificently emblazoned neighbor's house to take in the glowing spectacle?

Is it the joy/guilt in seeing that someone else has done all that work — the stringing and the plugging and the testing — while it took us until mid-December merely to mount a couple of light strands around the porch perimeter?

Whatever the reason, Chicagoans are suckers for a year-end lights display, as the traffic around Lincoln Park or Brookfield Zoo on a warm December weekend evening will attest.

The newcomer to this kilowatt party, Morton Arboretum, is once again the first to flip the switch this year with Illumination, its artful highlighting of the west suburban park's trees opening Friday, almost a full week ahead of Thanksgiving.

The mile-long path around water and through wooded groves adds new lighting and music features in this, its fourth season.

"I think we've reached the tipping point where we've kind of become a bit of a tradition," said John Featherstone, the lighting designer who directs the arboretum display. "We've gone from a novelty to a tradition. I don't think we're an institution yet, but we're working on it."

Holiday Lights
Let there be light, some of the area’s leading attractions say each year as Christmas approaches. And Chicagoans respond unto them by going to see the light, and it is good.

This year’s collective outdoor glow begins this week with the Morton Arboretum’s Illumination, a mile-long walk through trees, hedges, a hillside and a pond artfully set agleam. (Armando Sanchez / Chicago Tribune)
Lincoln Park Zoo's ZooLights begins its annual brightening of zoo grounds next week, and Brookfield Zoo's Holiday Magic lets there be light beginning Dec. 3. Ice carvers, start your chain saws.

Probably the other two most prominent holiday displays in the area are Chicago Botanic Garden's Wonderland Express model train extravaganza, beginning next week, and the Museum of Science and Industry's indoor Christmas Around the World and Holidays of Light, which kicks off its 75th season by lighting the four-story Grand Tree on Thursday. It'll be surrounded, as always, by trees decorated to honor dozens of cultures worldwide.

But for sheer innovation and beauty, it's hard to beat the way Illumination makes a multicolored, ever-changing theatrical set out of Morton Arboretum's trees, bushes, pond and pathways.

Illumination was founded on the premise that it's not how many bulbs you have but how well you use them. Each year, though, the event adds a little more. This year there is a new concluding segment, an illusion of a forest in the park's formal hedge garden as an original holiday musical score plays.

"We want that moment that's like the last encore of the band, the last aria of the opera, the finale of the fireworks display," Featherstone said. "Imagine an impressionistic vision of a bamboo grove" — white piping that lights dance across.

"We send our guests off with the wind of holiday cheer at their backs," he said.

Additionally, Illumination has once again reworked the bulbs on display in the central Meadow Lake, trying to find the most effective way to float LED fixtures on the body of water. And the new Treemagination uses projection mapping onto a grove of hemlock trees; one effect will make the trees appear to be almost breathing, underscoring Morton's message that trees are living, vital things, even in winter.

At Lincoln Park, ZooLights in its 22nd year will be "bigger and brighter than ever before," said Joshua Rupp, director of events. "This'll be the first year we've ever gone the full length of the zoo from north to south, east to west."

While the zoo was building its new penguin and polar bear habitats on the north end, the lighting moved south, down to the new seasonal ice-skating rink. Now that the new animal exhibits are open, the lights are joining them.

Rupp said he encourages his staff to be playful, telling them it's fine to have an octopus and a jack-in-the-box light display next to each other near the Lion House. "It's a fantasy world," he said. "There's a sense of creativity and just randomness around the zoo that you wouldn't expect."

Along with visits from Santa and the like, there'll be a new, temporary Ferris wheel, 65 feet tall, at the park's south end.

To accommodate expected crowds — more than 500,000 people came to the mostly free event last year — the zoo is adding days and extra ticketed events. Those events: a new holiday market Nov. 29, the BrewLights beer fest Dec. 1; Adults Night Out on Dec. 7; and Members Night on Dec. 8. Each Monday night is Family Night, with free kiddie train and carousel rides.

Mild weather is always a big draw, Rupp said, but he urged people to come on snow days. "The lights look so much better" with a touch of white frosting, he said.

Brookfield Zoo, like Morton Arboretum, is incorporating projection video mapping in its 35th year of Holiday Magic. The technology will be featured in a video and music show that will be displayed on the Swamp Pavilion. The Polar Lights show returns with a new design and layout and a new show.

"This year they're doing cubed trees that are going to dance to music," said Elizabeth Sterchele, marketing events assistant manager.

All the extras are coming back, she said: Santa and Mrs. Claus, chain saw ice-carving, carolers singing to reindeer, a "record-breaking" 535 community group-decorated holiday trees.

Plus, there's a Santa's workshop that'll be up in the underwater dolphin viewing area, she said. Maybe the elves can make some more lights for next year.

Illumination: Tree Lights at Morton Arboretum: 4100 Illinois Route 53, Lisle; Friday through Jan. 2 (closed Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas, Nov. 21 and 28, and Dec. 5 and 12); adult tickets $18-$22 at www.mortonarb.org.

sajohnson@tribpub.com

Twitter @StevenKJohnson