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Morton Arboretum 'Illumination' Opens

Chicago Tribune

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'Illumination' lets there be a little more light
By: Steve Johnson, Contact Reporter, Chicago Tribune

When Morton Arboretum began decking its trees in LED lights in wintertime, the idea was to be judicious and tasteful with the wattage.

This was going to be trees as theatrical set pieces, glowing artfully in different shades, rather than trees as hangers for the maximum number of bright holiday bulbs.

But this is a culture in which people, for the most part, like pizza with lots of cheese rather than the right amount of cheese. In its fifth anniversary season beginning Friday, there is more candlepower than ever at “Illumination,” the arboretum’s mile-long walk through festooned foliage. There are even, in a new feature this year, wearable LED medallions that make visitors part of the show.

The reason for the extra glow? The people demanded it.

“‘More’” is the No. 1 thing vistors have called for in surveys, said John Featherstone, “Illumination’s” lighting designer and creative director.

To be sure, the Morton display — the first of the big holiday lights extravaganzas to open at the area’s nature parks this year — is still not profligate in its artificial brightening. If you came to “Illumination” without having seen it before, you would recognize it as, in Featherstone’s words, “a nontraditional holiday lights display that really makes trees the stars of the show.” These are by no means gaudy Christmas baubles.

“I’m less interested in lights and more interested in light,” he said.

But some of the light is new, and a little brighter. The feature called Ornament Hill is now completely covered in light strands and round orbs that look like fallen tree ornaments. The tendrils of light that snake into the central Meadow Lake shine with more force.

“We’ve revisited and refreshed all the features here,” said Featherstone. “We’re really calling this ‘Illumination 2.0.’”

The goal, he said, is to complete the event’s transition from novelty to institution. The two longer-standing and more traditional lights displays that are already institutions, “ZooLights” at Lincoln Park Zoo and “Holiday Magic” at Brookfield Zoo, start this year a week and two weeks later, respectively.

During a trial run Monday evening, Morton’s new wearable light, which uses wireless technology, did a good job matching the display colors in front of it; as the display shifted from blue to white, so did the “Illu-Medallion.” The feature costs extra: $10 for the star-shaped light you hang around your neck. But it is yours to keep, and it will coordinate with the displays in front of you year after year, Featherstone promised.

Another change: The arboretum is going to a timed ticketing system to improve visitor flow and help people plan.

But it’ll mostly look as people remember it, with maybe just a little extra pop.

“You need to have some things which people know and love,” Featherstone said. “People didn’t stop buying Frangos because they tasted the same as last year’s Frangos.”

Meanwhile, at Lincoln Park Zoo, the run of “ZooLights” will continue to be punctuated by special events, some of which change the event from free to fee. Among them are a new, 33,000-bulb Light Maze ($3) operating daily, the craft beer fest “BrewLights” (Dec. 7; $40 and up) and a chance to see the event without strollers underfoot at the “Adults Night Out” (Nov. 30; $15). Zoo members only can preview “Zoo Lights” on Friday.

“Holiday Magic” special events include visits with Santa through Dec. 17 and a family-friendly “Zoo Year’s Eve” celebration Dec. 31.

“Illumination”: Tree Lights at Morton Arboretum: 4100 Illinois Route 53, Lisle; Friday through Jan. 1 (closed Mondays, Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas); adult tickets $18-$22 at


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