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Wonderland Express: A Beloved Chicago Holiday Tradition Returns

Festive lights, wreaths, holiday trees, model trains and a miniature landscape of Chicago landmarks evoke the magic of the season

Julie McCaffrey
(847) 835-8213, direct

Event Date: 
Friday, November 23, 2018 to Sunday, January 6, 2019
Release Date: 
Thursday, September 27, 2018

Wonderland Express brings its seasonal charm and holiday magic back to the Chicago Botanic Garden from November 23, 2018, through January 6, 2019. Sparkling outdoor lights, an indoor model train exhibition and special events make Wonderland Express a beloved Chicago holiday tradition for visitors of all ages.  

Tickets to Wonderland Express can be purchased online or at the Visitor Center beginning October 16, 2018, and are sold on a timed basis. Admission is $13 for adults, and $10 for children ages 3 to 12 and seniors ages 62 and older. Children 2 and younger are admitted free. Members receive $2 off each ticket. Tickets are ½ price on Tuesdays. Access to the outdoor lighting displays, Greenhouses and Greenhouse Gallery is free.

Wonderland Express is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. through December 21 and from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., December 22 through January 6, with the following exceptions: It will close at 3 p.m. on November 30, December 8 and 24. The exhibition is closed all day on December 25, though the Garden grounds will remain open until 5 p.m.

A twinkling display of 700,000 LED lights greets visitors at the Lake Cook Road entrance and continues to the Visitor Center and along the Esplanade, Heritage Garden, and Regenstein Center courtyards. Trees wrapped in white lights flank the Esplanade, anchored at the west end by a large evergreen tree decorated with multicolored lights. Looking across the North Lake to the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden, visitors will see lighted spheres in holiday colors. Holiday lighting will also be found inside the Greenhouses, specially decorated with colorful plants. The Greenhouse Gallery walls will display wreaths crafted by Garden employees and offered for purchase to be picked up after January 9.

Ticketed visitors can continue through Joutras Gallery, staged with a gingerbread village encircled by a train.

An atmospheric, birch pole and poinsettia Bridge Gallery takes visitors to Nichols Hall, which will be transformed into a storybook model train landscape. The exhibition contains more than 80 miniature replicas of Chicago-area landmarks crafted of all-natural materials by Paul Busse of Applied Imagination. Such favorites as the Willis Tower, Chicago Stadium, Navy Pier, and the Field Museum will be set in a breathtaking horticultural display including poinsettias, small fir trees, amaryllis, boxwoods and many other plants. New this year is a replica of an old-style railroad water tower, used by steam trains as a stop to replenish their water supply. Garden-scale trains add to the magical atmosphere as they wind through the exhibition, chugging along tracks, trellises and bridges.

The Lenhardt Library features the Waud felt figures display of hand-made storybook characters.

A full schedule of events includes a seasonal wine, spirits and brews tasting; Hanukkah and Christmas concerts; breakfast with Santa; and Family Drop-in Activities. Details follow:

  • Holiday Market in Burnstein Hall on December 1 and 2.
  • Holiday Cheers!: Seasonal Tasting – 6 to 8 p.m. Wednesday, December 5, in Burnstein Hall. Visitors 21 years and older can drink in the best of the season as they sample local spirits, wine and winter brews, and enjoy the surroundings of Wonderland Express. Guests receive a wristband, tasting glass, tasting sheet and access to the exhibition. Light fare and drinks will be available for purchase. Go to org/wonderland for the latest ticket information.
  • Breakfast with Santa – 8:00, 9:00 10:00, and 11:00 a.m. on Saturday and Sunday, December 15 and 16, in Burnstein Hall and Alsdorf Auditorium. Enjoy a buffet breakfast, visit with Santa and view the exhibition. Go to org/wonderland for the latest ticket information.
  • Christmas Concert – 11 a.m. or 1 p.m. on Saturday, December 8, in Alsdorf Auditorium. Get into the holiday spirit with traditional holiday musical favorites. Go to org/wonderland for the latest ticket information.
  • Hanukkah Concert – 11 a.m. or 1 p.m. on Sunday, December 9, in Alsdorf Auditorium. Enjoy a lively performance from The Maxwell Street Klezmer Band. Go to org/wonderland for the latest ticket information.
  • Family Drop-In Activities will take place from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. November 23-25, December 1 and 2, December 8 and 9, and December 15 and 16; from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. November 27, December 4, 11 and 18; and from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. on December 22 through January 6 (until 3 p.m. on Dec. 24 and closed on Dec. 25).
  • Caroling will take place from 10 a.m. to noon on November 23, 24, and 25 and December 22.
  • Ice Sculpting will take place in the Runnells Courtyard from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. on December 16 and January 5 and 6.
  • Holiday movies will be played in the Alsdorf Auditorium on December 23, 29 and 30.

Wonderland Express is generously supported by ComEd, NorthShore University HealthSystem, Discover, and Grainger (1/2 price Tuesdays). Visit for more information.


Editors, please note: For digital images, contact Julie McCaffrey at (847) 835-8213 or at

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