Last year, Descanso Gardens officials bet on a new star attraction — a winter-themed light exhibit that would give visitors a look at the best of what the botanical showplace has to offer through a decidedly different nighttime perspective.
The bet paid off. An estimated 130,000 people visited Descanso last year to see "Enchanted: Forest of Light," a roughly 1-mile walk through eight large-scale displays, many of them interactive, and all involving some form of illumination.
Now in its second year, "Enchanted" is living up to its name, offering a visual spectacle whose exhibits employ music, sound and the occasional special effect to create an atmospheric and otherworldly view of Descanso's splendors.
Executive Director Juliann Rooke said the show, which opened to the public on Sunday night, sold out its first two nights, with about 60,000 tickets ordered online. Perhaps due in part to a staggering number of photo opportunities, the popularity of "Enchanted" among visitors is raising the garden's profile.
"We did not design it with Instagram moments in mind," Rooke said. "For many of the people who came last year, it was their first time ever at Descanso Gardens. We really wanted them to understand what Descanso is about."
Though the general footprint of the event is mostly the same, and the focus remains on the plants as stars, Rooke said the intention is to keep "Enchanted" fresh without abandoning any crowd favorites. To gauge visitors' reactions to the inaugural event, organizers sent out a survey to see what alterations might be made in the second year.
When respondents overwhelmingly indicated their favorite area was the lighted "Ancient Forest," Rooke and her team focused on how the space could be enhanced. This year, they started the installation work there earlier, enlarging it and adding a Jurassic soundtrack and fog machine.
"We responded to what people liked and beefed it up," Rooke said of the changes.
Another exhibit that got a boost was "Flower Power," a display of lighted tulips standing in the exact spot where live bulbs will bloom in spring, which went from 2,900 tulips last year to 4,000 this year. A completely reimagined lawn installation invites guests of all ages to run and play on interactive light pathways.
New additions like the Starlight Garden — featuring "Celestial Shadows," a geometric art installation that explores geometric shapes through light and shadow — bring the total number of exhibits to 10. Meanwhile, three of Descanso's five heritage oaks — between 300 and 500 years old — located in the exhibition space are blanketed in a resplendent white light to showcase their majesty.
Rook estimates a typical visit could take a little over one hour, possibly longer if people stop for food and hot chocolate inside the garden.
FYI: "Enchanted: Forest of Light" runs through Jan. 7, from 5:30 to 10 p.m. Timed tickets cost $28 for visitors over 2 years of age and can be purchased online at descansogardens.org. Descanso Gardens is located at 1415 Descanso Drive, La Cañada Flintridge.