Lush, snow-coated forests harken images of reindeers soaring overhead, as the faint jingling of bells enchant the air with a sense of magic. Christmas has long been a season of hope and togetherness. Luckily, Port City dwellers have their own slice of holiday charm. Come Friday, November 28, Wilmington’s famed Airlie Gardens will deck the halls in festive lights and Christmastime cheer.
Established in 1901, historic Airlie Gardens features 10-acres of freshwater lakes, a 466-year-old oak tree, superb views of Bradley Creek, and a host of plants, wildlife, and exhibits offered throughout the year. In its history, the gardens have been turned over to numerous owners. It was privately own before being purchased by New Hanover County in 1999. Known for its tourist appeal and hosting numerous weddings, it wasn’t until 2005 that Enchanted Airlie began thanks to the Airlie Gardens Foundation. The foundation wanted to make the gardens viewable at night and serve as a fundraiser for preservation and improvements. The event welcomes people of all ages to wander through the gardens’ grounds on self-guided tours.
“We started with a small area, and have expanded each year,” Janine Powell, development manager at Airlie Gardens, tells. “Growth has occurred steadily throughout the 10 years we have been doing Enchanted Airlie. We have seen significant growth in the last two years.”
Nearly 30,000 folks make their way across its 67 acres, adorned with nearly 750,000 lights each holiday season. Travelers from all 50 states and 47 countries cross the globe to the event each year. In fact, the Southeast Tourism Society honored Enchanted Airlie as a top-20 event in 2012, and this November Out and About editor for Raleigh’s WRAL-TV, Kathy Hanrahan, included it as one of her top five “places you should definitely try to visit before the end of the year.”
“We were thrilled to be recognized,” Powell beams.
Each year prep work for the winter extravaganza begins in May, as the dedicated team examines countless strands of lights and starts planning (think Clark Griswold in “Christmas Vacation”—only covering an expansive public space). As the first leaves fall in early October, lifts to string lights at the highest points and a hefty helping of manpower begin the installation process.
“This year we are adding lights on the causeway that separates the two sides of Airlie Lake,” Powell says. “Each year we add lights, and since this is the tenth anniversary, we wanted to make sure the lights were over the top.”
The Enchanted Forest will come alive on the banks of Bradley Creek. Vibrant, colorful and decadent trees lit with LED lights will illuminate the body of water as folks journey along it. New this year, Bradley Creek also will boast a fishing-themed display at its overlook. Christmas classics will take over the gardens, thanks to a special Enchanted Airlie radio station that’s done through Sunny 104.5FM, a Sunrise Broadcast station. For the second year now the lights on the Oak Lawn will work in unison with the music, as the lights twinkle to the tunes of Yuletide cheer.
Airlie’s 2,700 square-foot butterfly house, too, will come alive with the spirit of the season. “The butterfly house is a very tranquil area,” Powell describes. “Elegant lights, small glittering butterflies, and up-lighting of the sculpture on the butterfly house add to the atmosphere.”
Light displays won’t be the only thing lifting spirits at Airlie. More than 400 pink and red poinsettias were planted just last week to make up Poinsettia Paradise. As always, the ever-delightful presence of Kris Kringle, a part of Enchanted Airlie that’s become a mainstay, will bring smiles to the faces of all in attendance. The kiddies will be able to climb atop his lap and present him with their wishes.
“Santa’s North Pole is a tented area so you can visit with him out of the weather,” Powell comments. “We have a special chair for him, lighted Christmas trees and a hearth area to make it cozy. It is fun to see the kids visit and have their photos taken with the same Santa for 10 years!”
Over the last few years, Enchanted Airlie has exhibited a train and LEGOS display. Yet, it will not be a part of the 2014 event. “We loved the trains and LEGOS, but are always striving to keep the event fresh,” Powell says. In their place, Enchanted Airlie will be themed with a winter-wonderland aesthetic. Presented by The WOW Factor of Wilmington, a children’s event-planning group, Elsa and Anna from Disney’s “Frozen” will be there nightly to greet and pose with guests.
Folks can also enjoy hot cocoa sold by vendors, and there will be wine for adults. Popcorn, cookies and other treats will be available for purchase.
Tickets to Enchanted Airlie can be purchased by the carload for $27 (three-plus people per car, but does not include large passenger vans or buses). A couple pass is available for $17 (two persons, one vehicle) or single tickets for $12 (one person, one vehicle). Members of Airlie Gardens also can reserve tickets online. Enchanted Airlie runs from November 28 through December 22, with two separate showings a night (5 p.m. to 7 p.m. and 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.). It extends to Thursdays and Sundays beginning on December 11, and it will feature a special Monday time on December 22. The event sells out quickly each year.
“It is heart-warming to see so many families enjoying the event,” Powell says. “We see some of the same families year after year
Airlie Gardens, 300 Airlie Rd.
Nov. 28 – Dec. 22, 5 p.m. and 7 p.m.