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Daytime winter festival replaces Garvan Gardens holiday light displays

The botanical garden will show off its natural beauty and spread the crowds across the day to keep the tradition safe this year.

HOT SPRINGS, Ark. — Garvan Woodland Gardens will test the theory that the Polar Express can be just as magical if it arrives in the middle of the day.

The popular tourist attraction typically creates traffic jams during the holiday season to see elaborate light displays across its sprawling Hot Springs botanical garden, but the pandemic has put that on hold.

Instead, organizers have designed a festival that will take place during the day.

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"I'm not disappointed. I'd have been very disappointed if we had to cancel it altogether," said Minnie Shelor, the garden director who saved Christmas and one of the team leaders who created natural designs that shine during the day.

"We are still able to keep people safe during this time of the pandemic and allow them to have this tradition in a little bit of different venue," she said while standing in the middle of a circular pavilion designed to resemble a snow globe.

An electric wonderland has mainly been replaced by what Shelor calls a winter retreat, with displays designed to augment the natural colors of the wooded peninsula jutting into Lake Hamilton.

"The natural beauty is just emphasized by the fact that you can actually see everything during the daytime instead of just the light show," she said.

The daytime switch isn't such a risky bet because the place is a year-round draw and not dependent on the holidays. Still, the organizers knew they needed to hang on to some traditions, like a photo-ready package bow, a Santa statue seated on a bench, and a chugging green and red-lit choo-choo train named James.

"We've been able to keep some of those classics and some of those things that people have come to expect and love," said Shelor, though visitors won't be able to climb on the locomotive this year.

On the plus side, camera phone photographers won't have to struggle getting good lighting or come away with a trove of fuzzy pictures. With displays along the camellia trail designed by students from the architecture school at the University of Arkansas incorporating lights and leaves, the Gardens might be just the way to stop and smell the flowers and the hot cocoa.

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"This is a great solution for us and I hope also the families that choose to visit us this winter," said Shelor.

The gardens will open at 10 a.m., sell admission until 5 p.m., and close a half-hour after that. Regular admission prices will be in effect.