Looking for some indoor winter fun with the kids? If so, you should check out the Chicago Botanic Garden’s Wonderland Express. It’s an annual holiday extravaganza that features model trains journeying around and above dozens of Chicagoland’s major landmarks—from Wrigley Field and the Baha’i Temple, to Sears Tower and The Bean—all lovingly created with the use of leaves, wood, and other natural products. There are also water features, snowflakes occasionally falling from the indoor “sky,” and holiday music.
My seven-year old son and I both had a wonderful time watching the trains weave through the natural landscapes and discovering well-known Chicago landmarks as we walked through the exhibit.
The Chicago Botanic Garden (1000 Lake Cook Road, Glencoe, IL 60022, 847/835-6801) also has three amazing greenhouses—two filled with exotic tropical plants (pruned in the summer so that they bloom in the winter to wow us sad-sack shivering Chicagoans) and another arrayed with an amazing medley of cacti and succulents—some more than 10-feet tall.
Even though it was very cold during our visit, my son and I headed outside for a few short hikes to admire the grounds and waterways, and then made a beeline back to the greenhouses after each hike to warm up. We nicknamed the greenhouses Arizona, SoCal, and Florida for their teasingly warm temperatures amidst the Chicago winter cold. Once you enter the greenhouses on a cold winter day, you’ll never want to leave.
The Chicago Botanic Garden’s Wonderland Express is open through January 6, 2019, with the following hours:
November 23 – December 21, 2018, 10 a.m. – 5 p.m.
December 22 – January 6, 2019, 10 a.m. – 7 p.m.
December 25: CLOSED
NOTE: The exhibit closes early on certain days. Click here for details and to order tickets.
Here are the admission prices:
Adults: $11 members/$13 nonmembers
Children ages 3 to 12 and seniors over age 62: $8 members/$10 nonmembers
Children 2 and under: Free
Tuesdays are half price.
There is also a $25/car entry fee.
The Chicago Botanic Garden is a popular destination in the spring, summer, and fall. If you love nature and hikes and strolls through flower-filled meadows, English and Japanese gardens, forests, and much more, you could easily spend an entire day touring its 27 gardens and four natural areas, which are situated on 385 acres on and around nine islands, with six miles of lake shoreline. (Amazing stats at the CBG’s website: There are 2,587,596 plants representing 9,694 plant varieties of 232 plant families onsite). But although the flowers are gone, the trees are bare, and the lake and waterways may be frozen at times, there’s plenty to do at the CBG in winter, including:
- Having a relaxing meal or cup of coffee at the Garden View Café and watching nature through the windows. The food is great.
- Checking out the garden’s large gift shop filled with ideas for holiday presents, including books, live plants, kids’ toys, clothing, and holiday ornaments.
- Braving the cold and hiking the grounds (including McDonald’s Woods) in solitude or near solitude. Nature is a perfect antidote for the modern world. Click here for a useful map. Additionally, the GardenGuide App 2.0 is a great way to learn more about the CBG and navigate its vast expanses. Its features will be especially useful in warmer weather, when you can use its Walking Tours, What’s in Bloom, and Plant Guide features.
- Walking the grounds to enjoy the holiday lights.
- Taking a class. According to its website, the CBG offers “1,500 classes, workshops, programs, and events on everything from the life cycle of plants to painting and photography, butterflies to bonsai, and wilderness survival to yoga workouts, in one of the largest blended indoor/outdoor learning environments in the area.”
- Listening to holiday music at the Christmas Brass Concert with the Chicago Brass Band on Saturday, December 8, 2018, 11 a.m. and 1 p.m.
- Enjoying a Hanukkah Concert, with music by the Maxwell Street Klezmer Band on Sunday, December 19, 2018, 11 a.m. and 1 p.m.
- Watching a movie with the kids on December 23, 2018 (How the Grinch Stole Christmas and Prep and Landing) and December 29 and 30 (Frosty’s Winter Wonderland and Jack Frost)
- Watching sculptors wield chainsaws and carving tools to create ice art on December 16 and January 5 and 6, 11 a.m. and 2 p.m.
Finally, consider becoming a member of the Chicago Botanic Garden. We’ve enjoyed the benefits of membership for the past year, including free parking, a quarterly magazine, and discounts at the café and Garden Shop, as well, as discounts on events such as Butterflies & Blooms, Model Railroad Garden (a great summer option), and tram tour tickets. If you make several trips to the CBG, your membership will pay for itself.
Copyright (text/photos) Andrew Morkes
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