San Diego Botanic Garden dials up the wattage with mile-long Lightscape attraction

In Ari Novy’s understandably biased opinion, the San Diego Botanic Garden is the most beautiful garden of its kind in the world. But even Novy, who is president and CEO of the 37-acre property in Encinitas, can admit it just got a lot prettier.

That’s because San Diego Botanic Garden is now hosting Lightscape, an illuminated nighttime walkway with more than 1 million lights, as well as light sculptures and synchronized music. The mile-long attraction opens to the public today, Nov. 18, and runs through Jan. 1.

Founded in the United Kingdom in 2013, Lightscape has been presented at botanic gardens throughout the world. San Diego Botanic Garden is the seventh botanic garden in the U.S. to host the attraction.

EPeople walk by the Neon Tree which is part of Lightscape at the San Diego Botanic Garden.

On Wednesday night, Nov. 16, Novy was on hand at the local garden to proudly oversee a sneak preview of the light installation for employees, their guests and the media. He said the project was a year in the planning stages, because Lightscape’s creative team builds each client’s installation from scratch to highlight the plants, topography and other unique features of each property.

For example, San Diego Botanic Garden is on hilly land, with intimate walkways where plants are close enough to touch. That creates an especially magical experience on the narrow pathway in the garden’s lush bamboo forest, which is the largest publicly accessible collection of bamboo varieties in North America. Dots of laser-projected light swirl through the tall forest to the accompaniment of fantasy-like music, creating a sort of “fairy forest.” At least that’s how visitor Tara Gordon of San Diego described the experience on Wednesday, Nov. 16, as she stopped to take a video with her phone.

“It’s really magical. I love it,” Gordon said.

For many years, San Diego Botanic Garden hosted its own, homegrown holiday nighttime light show under the names Garden of Lights and Botanic Wonderland. But with the pandemic now fading, Novy said he wanted to celebrate the return to holiday programming with something much bigger.

In past years, the garden’s holiday light show drew 20,000 to 30,000 visitors. Novy said he hopes to draw as many as 60,000 regional visitors to Lightscape. And if the event is a hit this fall, he plans to bring it back next year and beyond.

“We want to offer our customers the highest possible quality experience with the most artistic vision we could want,” Novy said.

Pyrotechnic supervisor Anthony Delzio lights a lantern in the Fire Garden at San Diego Botanic Garden.

Lightscape was developed by Creative Culture, a production company in northeast England, which has worked with Sony Music over the past nine years to create more than 30 illuminated trails around the world at locations that have included England’s Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, Chicago Botanic Garden, Brooklyn Botanic Garden and the Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria in Australia.

Over the past year, representatives from Creative Culture and Sony Music visited and walked the gardens to plan and map out locations where lights and sculptures would be installed. Then, the Lightscape team chose which installations would work best from among its catalog of creations by nearly 400 light and light sculpture artists worldwide.

San Diego Botanic Garden’s Lightscape setup includes hundreds of colored flood lights illuminating individual trees and plants, as well as 11 light sculpture stations.

By far the most popular installation on Wednesday, Nov. 16, was the Winter Cathedral, an arched tunnel illuminated by tens of thousands of LED light globes with Christmas music playing inside. It was created by Mandylights of Australia.

Another popular stop is the Neon Tree, a living tree that Creative Culture decorated with ropes of neon-colored light on its branches and trunk. And the Singing Tree, designed by Ithaca Studios in Brighton, England, is a large banyan tree wrapped with strings of lights that illuminate and change color to the sound of holiday carols.

As a nod to North County’s long heritage as the grower and creator of new varieties of poinsettia plants, there is also an installation of giant fabric poinsettia blossoms filled with glowing light filaments. They were created by United Kingdom artist Helen Davies. And San Diego Botanic Garden got a city fire permit for Chicago artist Ashley Bertling’s Fire Garden, which features more than 200 glowing wax paraffin candles in a fenced enclosure.

Christine Tara Peterson does a yoga pose in the Winter Cathedral at Lightscape at the San Diego Botanic Garden.

Tickets can be purchased for entry times every 15 minutes from 5 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. on show nights. Gates close at 10 p.m. Only 150 tickets will be sold during each 15-minute period to control crowds. Show dates are Nov. 18-20, 23, 25-27, Dec. 1-4, 8-11, 14-23, 26-31 and Jan. 1. Parking is $10.

General admission tickets for adults are $29, or $26 for military. Children ages 3 to 12 are $18, or $15 for military dependents ages 3 to 12. Children 2 and under are free. San Diego Botanic Garden members get a discount. The garden will also sell a $60 flex ticket that allows visitors to enter at any time during the 5 to 8:30 p.m. window on select days. The flex ticket includes parking.

Tickets are on sale at

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