For three weeks, workers have been busy as elves dressing up the Florida Botanical Gardens for Holiday Lights in the Gardens, a much-loved tradition in Pinellas County since it began in 2002. On Friday evening, when the illuminated gardens open to the public, more than 500,000 lights will shimmer from treetops, along walkways and on the countless bougainvillea, hibiscus and bromeliads.
Visitors will be transported to a winter wonderland — Florida style.
Holiday Lights in the Gardens will be held from 5:30 to 9:30 every night from Friday through Jan. 1. Although it is free, a donation of $2 per adult is requested. The gardens are at 12520 Ulmerton Road.
Along with enjoying the glittering trails, which are lined with illuminated artistic versions of alligators, flamingos and turtles, youngsters are invited to visit Santa Claus. He's scheduled to kick off the season in the Wedding Garden area on Friday night. While kids wait in line to give the big guy their toy requests, families will be able to watch a train running on a track around an enormous Christmas tree.
New this year are two fountains lit up with lasers on both sides of the bridge over McKay Creek.
"As people enter and walk over the bridge, they'll see the fountains, with varying degrees of light and intensity. We're excited about it,'' said Chuck Scaffidi, president of the Florida Botanical Gardens Foundation, the all-volunteer, nonprofit group that took over Holiday Lights from the Pinellas County government in 2008.
Also new this year is the Botanical Gardens Vinery. Created in the spring, the vinery is near the Palm Garden.
"It includes a dozen different types of vines, and people should check it out. It is still a bit immature as far as growth goes, but the trellises will be lit up. They have been decorated, and it's interesting to see,'' Scaffidi said.
Although Scaffidi, a retired NASA aerospace engineer, cherishes the holidays, he still considers the flora and fauna inside the Florida Botanical Gardens the primary reason people should visit the county-owned complex of 30 acres of cultivated gardens and 90 acres of natural areas.
"I think people should check out the dogwood shrubs,'' he said. "They are just gorgeous, large blooms. There's a white, pink and red.
"Also, in the same area where they are (on the Tropical Walk), everybody should also see the Christmas ornament tree," he said. "That is what it is really called. It always blooms around Christmastime, and it's budded up now. In a few weeks it'll have a large flower that drapes from the stems. It's pink and really something.''
Scaffidi, who has enlisted 300 volunteers through the foundation to help with Holiday Lights, expects 60,000 people to visit this season.
In the coming weeks, there will be two special events that coincide with Holiday Lights. The Gardens' Gift and Plant Sale from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Dec. 9 will feature more than 35 vendors selling plants and gift items. The Gardens' Dog Parade will start at 2 p.m. Dec. 30.
For more information about the Florida Botanical Gardens, visit flbg.org or call (727) 582-2100.