LARGO — On any given day, the Florida Botanical Gardens is a spectacle with its multitude of flora and fauna.
However, with the addition of 500,000 sparkling lights, lasers and dozens of artistically illuminated butterflies, alligators and other wildlife, the place almost becomes an out-of-this-world extravaganza.
Friday marks the start of the 38-day run of "Holiday Lights in the Gardens," which is expected to draw more than 50,000 people before it ends on Jan. 1.
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Opening-night festivities Friday will include an official tree lighting in the Wedding Garden, live entertainment and a train exhibit by the Florida Garden Railway Society.
This will be the fourth year that the light show has been funded through the Florida Botanical Gardens Foundation. In 2008, the Pinellas County Parks Department approached the foundation, a nonprofit, all-volunteer group, for help in continuing the annual county display.
"The county let us know they could not spend the money on a light display, so we stepped up,'' explained Chuck Scaffidi, foundation president.
"The first year, we put in $25,000 to take it over and we lost money, but over time, we've figured out the formula. Last year, for example, we saw gross earnings of more than $70,000," said Scaffidi, who first became interested in gardening as a stress reliever, before he retired from his work as a NASA aerospace engineer.
Over the years, the foundation has figured out it should place donation tables at the entry and feature more prominently particular areas of the gardens, including adding more lights to the children's area and the cactus garden.
In an attempt to bring even more visitors to the Florida Botanical Gardens, earlier this year the foundation donated a $35,000, four-piece glass mosaic created by former foundation board member and artist Heather Anderson. Located in the Wedding Garden area, it has replaced four water fountains installed 10 years ago that needed repair.
The mosaic's official unveiling was Tuesday at a Holiday Lights in the Gardens preview night for the Pinellas County Commission and other special guests.
"I know a lot of people will enjoy the artwork,'' said Scaffidi. "At the unveiling, I had fun pointing out that when Heather Anderson created it, she included many fish, frogs and lily pads, but she made sure to only put in one turtle. We want to see a lot of people in the next few weeks at the lights display stopping by to look at the art and search for that one turtle. It's a fun game, so if you find the turtle, keep it a secret and bring others out to search for it, too.''
Pinellas County Commissioner Karen Seel, a strong advocate for the Florida Botanical Gardens, said she was amazed when the foundation agreed to take on the project four years ago.
"And what these volunteers have done is amazing. Plus they keep making it bigger and brighter and more beautiful,'' she said. "I've been so impressed with their dedication and the countless hours they put in, giving up their Christmas, their Hanukkah, and all their free time to make sure the public can enjoy this.''
Piper Castillo can be reached at (727) 445-4163 or firstname.lastname@example.org.