Chicago Botanic Garden is the site of one of the most beloved family holiday traditions in Chicagoland: Wonderland Express. This must-see event on the North Shore, now in its eighth year, features miniature trains traveling through a landscape decorated by replicas of more than 80 Chicago-area buildings and landmarks.
The exhibit manages to wow both kids and adults. Thomas the Tank Engine is just one of the model trains the younger set will be thrilled by as they zip through a miniature-scale Chicago. (Older train enthusiasts may appreciate the model of the California Zephyr, originally from 1949, which headed west from Chicago to Denver to San Francisco). All of the bridges, trestles, tunnels and buildings are painstakingly hand-crafted from natural materials: twigs, grasses, bark, leaves, acorns, seeds, pods, pine cones - even a gourd used to fashion the dome of the Baha'i Temple.
You will marvel at the small-scale versions of Navy Pier, Water Tower, John Hancock Building, Marina City towers (look for a recently-added figurine of aerialist Nik Wallenda on a tightrope between the towers), "The Bean" in Millennium Park, Frank Lloyd Wright's Robie House, Merchandise Mart, Chicago Stadium, Soldier Field, Lincoln Park Zoo, Field Museum, Adler Planetarium, the old Marshall Field Clock, Como Inn, American Girl Place, and Crate & Barrel, for starters. Adjacent to the main exhibition space is the Krehbiel Gallery, which hosts a separate wonderland of North Shore landmarks that include Ravinia, the Baha'i Temple, Northwestern University and, of course, the Botanic Garden.
Befitting its locale, Wonderland Express is highlighted by an amazing horticultural landscape that is a feast for the eyes and the nose! All manner of plants, ferns, trees and topiary gracefully complement the architecture; small signs are placed throughout the exhibit with flora/fauna identifying information (i.e. Selaginella kraussiana "Variegatus" is commonly known as Frosty Fern). To add the finishing touch, several overhead machines in the main exhibit room shower visitors with falling "snow" - a mixture of 99% water and 1% vegetable oil. It is not cold, and is edible - we all caught a fair amount on our tongues. The snow was my daughter's favorite part, and it truly makes for a wintry wonderland experience!
To further engage kids, younger visitors are given a scavenger hunt/bingo sheet at the entrance of the Wonderland exhibit. On weekends, there are drop-in family craft events; when we went, our family made individual bird feeders with cranberries strung on pieces of wire, and snowflakes. It is also well worth your while to explore the three Botanic Garden greenhouses, which will not only warm you up from the chilly outside temperatures but present an awesome display of tropical plants and flowers. You might have to explain to your kids why you can not grow a cacao tree in your backyard, though.
The Wonderland Express exhibit runs from Nov. 28 to Jan. 4. Chicago Botanic Garden is located at 1000 Lake Cook Road, Glencoe. Tickets can be purchased on site or online at www.chicagobotanic.org.
**Disclosure: I received complimentary passes to Wonderland Express in order to write an accurate review. All opinions are 100% my own.**