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Review: Illumination at the Arboretum


On a below freezing Thursday afternoon, after spending the last thirty minutes outdoors feeling the wind whip up off the frozen lake bed and hit my camera and my glove-covered hands with brute force, I can honestly say the most rewarding part of "Illumination at the Arboretum" was going into the visitor's center.

Because it was heated after all.

Don't get me wrong, I am not trying to take away the dazzling properties of projected lights on trees.  That's all well and good. But looking at the Arboretum from Route 53 at its lighted landscaping, you would think that once you got inside you and your family would be subject to all sorts of incredible light displays synchronized to music with lights and sounds and holiday classics . . . all that jazz!

But no.

Going into it I was told that there was an "Enchanted Railroad," and thinking of some of our prior experiences at places like Brookfield Zoo, I figured that the Arboretum had hired a few trolleys to drive the trails and show you the lights.

But no.

What I got was Thomas the Tank Engine.

Reviewers from the Chicago Tribune to Western Suburban Living Magazine have left nothing short of glowing reviews for the Morton Arboretum's first holiday showcase called "Illumination at the Arboretum," but even after taking a few days to sit on my thoughts and really be objective, I still can't get over the fact I paid $30 dollars (2 tickets) to freeze that much and walk that far.

And to be clear, I'm not a big person by any stretch of the imagination. I can walk 3-4 miles a day without any issues. But when I have to pay to do it and at the same time be exposed to a lake and high winds . . . that's when I have a bit of an issue with it.

Sort of like the Great Siberian Ice March . . . but with colored high powered flashlights and hot chocolate at three dollars a cup.

Okay, maybe it's not THAT BAD, but as you can imagine, I was disappointed.

During our first warm up inside the visitor's center, one of the Arboretum's employees asked if we would take the time to fill out a survey.

I just smiled and kept my head down, pretending not to hear her.

I was still trying to make up my mind at that point and be bias, but it was sort of like a "Lady, really?  Don't push me right now" moment.

However, to their credit, the Arboretum did do some things right. 

Heating stations across the park were a great idea. The part that wasn't? Making them like a bum would at the last minute for warmth. These "heating stations" were nothing more than fires in a barrel. That's all fine and good if you are freezing, but H-E-L-L-O! We're surrounded by trees! Clearly someone wasn't thinking when it came to that. Should they continue Illumination following this year, they need to build some small structures of some sort to house walks of this nature for warmth.

Next up as we continue to play the positive card of this review . . . there was Thomas the Tank Engine.  Yes, at first I was a bit disappointed this was the "Enchanted Train" I thought I was going to ride around the Arboretum like some mystical wizard inspecting his kingdom . . . but on second thought this was a pretty cool display.

The trains themselves turned out to be no larger than your forearm; however, the kids enjoyed it and when it comes down to it, isn't that all that really matters? Although in the future, I would advise they build a GIANT Thomas the Tank Engine for kids to be dwarfed by and take their picture with. After all, bigger is better.

Small Thomas. Still cool though.

But the best part of our visit to the Arborutum (should I pick a particular moment) would be the fact that the grounds crew hit it out of the park (quite literally) keeping black ice from forming on the walkways. I said something about it during our visit and apparently someone at CBS2 overheard me because the very next morning there was a story on how the Arboretum was doing this Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde experimentation with beet juice to fight black ice from forming. Apparently, it works. Whoever came up with such an idea deserves a promotion.

As for the dudes who did the lights . . . add some talent to that department for year two. There are plenty of folks around the Chicagoland area who can do a heck of a job at their own homes decorating and could be environmentally friendly about it as well.

Next year, light up the Arboretum the right way.


Atmosphere (Christmas Lights): 1/5 stars

Projected Lights: 1/ 5 stars

Holiday Magic for Kids: 3/ 5 stars

Safety: 5/ 5 stars

Price: 1/ 5 stars

Overall score: 2/5 Stars