Thursday, November 27, 2008

Fountains, Flowers and Flights of Fancy at Longwood Gardens

Outside the trees are dropping their vibrant fall colors while inside exotic flowers and plants burst with more colors than a springtime rainbow. The place is Longwood Gardens, just west of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where exotic plants from throughout the world are on display year round.

If you like flowers and fountains this is the place to see over eleven thousand different plant species and more fountains than any other garden in the United States. Throughout the year, there are different themes to highlight the spectacular plants and special attractions. Going on now through November 23 is "Autumn's Colors".

Also through November is the Chrysanthemum Festival with more than 20,000 Chrysanthemums in bloom. The indoor and outdoor gardens are bursting with color and extraordinary shapes. The entire 1,050 acre estate has areas of interest for visitors of all ages. Take a walk in the topiary gardens and imagine the whimsical creatures and shapes that made gardens like these a staple for the rich and famous around the world. There are areas of discovery for children and adults in the Indoor Children's Garden, or at the Idea Garden where you can watch the trains as they travel through miniature Longwood landmarks made from natural elements.

In addition to the changing flower displays, there are special entertainment and cultural events. "Fall Fantasy of Glass" is running simultaneously with the current theme and highlights the artwork of glass artists Michael Cohn and Molly Stone, of Cohn-Stone Studios in Richmond, California. Their colorful and whimsical pumpkin and gourd creations are a visual treat. These are excellent artists who have exhibited throughout the world and are featured in a number of museums, corporate and private collections.

We made the day trip in early November with some out of town visitors. I wasn't sure how impressed I would be of a glass squash but I have to admit the colorful blown glass are truly a work of art and enjoyable to see. The artistry of the glass pumpkins fit perfectly with the natural beauty of the flowering plants surrounding the exhibit area. I was impressed with the hospitality and friendliness of all the staff and employees that we encountered. We were approached by one staff member, who upon seeing my 83 year old mother in law, let us know where we could get a wheel chair at different locations throughout the park if we needed one.

The architecture of the conservatory, ballroom and mansions on the grounds are also worth the time to visit. The entire property has a wonderful history, dating back to 1700 when William Penn issued a grant of land to the Peirce family. It wasn't until the early 1900's, when Pierre S. DuPont, of the Delaware DuPont family, purchased the estate that the gardens began to take shape.

While we were there, we noticed a number of workers busy getting ready for the annual Christmas spectacular with over 500,000 outdoor lights that will be burning throughout the gardens. During December, the floral displays, decorated trees, ice skating under the trees and the dancing fountains make Longwood gardens a wonderful outing. There are two dining areas open for a snack, meal or hot drink. Christmas at Longwood runs from November 27 through January 11, 2009. If you can't make it before Christmas it is still a great place to take family, and visitors, after the holidays.

Keep in mind there is a new ticketing process for Christmas admissions. When we visited during Christmas last year it was crowded to the point that once in line you were propelled through the gardens. This year Longwood is going to a timed ticket entrance policy that will reduce the crowds and wait time as the more popular exhibits. To reserve a place go online to their ticket page at

For the serious artist and photographer you can take your easel or tripod but only before noon and you have to stop by the main desk to get a registration tag.

Getting There. Located in southeastern Pennsylvania, Longwood Gardens is a great day trip from places in New York, Eastern Pennsylvania, Northern Delaware, Maryland and Washington DC. Approximate distances from these areas:

Philadelphia, PA - 30
Wilmington, DE - 12
Valley Forge, PA - 28
Lancaster, PA - 43
Baltimore, MD - 75
Washington, DC - 110
New York, NY - 130

Individual Ticket Costs
Adults: $16
Seniors (ages 62+): $14
Students (ages 5-22): $6
Children ages 4 and under: Free

All Aboard a Magical Ride at the National Aquarium

With pocket watch in one hand and oil lantern in the other, the mid-twentieth century train conductor greets us with a drawn out baritone "alllll aboard." Not the usual greeting one would expect at the National Aquarium in Baltimore, where people from around the world come to view the more than 16,000 animals, fish, birds and marine life that represent over 660 species.

This particular visit to the aquarium was unlike any other visit to see the many aquatic themed exhibits. This night was a magical night filled with the multi sensory film experience of the "Polar Express." This classic animated film is a fifteen-minute 4-D experience that will take you on a train ride in the aquarium's Immersion Theater. I have seen the full length "Polar Express" in 3-D IMAX that is quite a show, but nothing like this 15 minute, eye popping, in your face version.

I've been to several 3-D movies with varying reviews of quality and I wasn't sure that even with the 4th dimension this would be much different. While I anticipated a few scenes that would make the audience duck as something flew out of the screen, I had no way of knowing what was in store. I was blown away with the fourth dimension. From the opening scene, when the boy is awakened by the arrival of the Polar Express outside his bedroom, I was hooked. Not only was the sound realistic but the seat and entire theater seemed to rumble as if a train had just rolled in. You feel the wind of a passing train on your face and whoosh of the escaping steam cloud from the brakes on your legs. As the steel wheels grind to a stop, the snow that is gently falling in the film is also falling in the theater.

One of best features of this experience takes place in the dining car as dancing waiters break into song and acrobatics as they pass out hot chocolate to the wide-eyed passengers. As the drinks are poured on screen, you can smell the hot chocolate. There are more special effects in the movie and in the previews of coming attractions. While the "Polar Express" may not be what you would typically expect at the aquarium it is fast becoming a holiday tradition to get in the holiday spirit and a chance for audiences to experience the amazing 4-D Immersion Theater. This is a must see film for the family, whether you have kids or not. The "Polar Express 4-D" runs through January 4, 2009.

Remember this theater experience is only one facet of the hundreds of exhibits at the aquarium. Visitors can trek through the Australian outback in the Animal Planet Australian - Wild Extremes exhibit, experience the tropical rainforest, explore the undersea world of aquatic life and see a live dolphin show. This is an excellent adventure for the whole family.

Getting There:
Located at the Inner Harbor, Baltimore, Maryland

Hours of Operation Mon-Thur: 9am-5pm Fri: 9am-8pm Sat: 9am-6pm Sun: 9am-5pm Throughout the year, visitors may tour the Aquarium for up to 1 and 1/2 hours after the ticket center closes.

Holiday Closures - Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day.

Admission Rates: From $13 to $29 Total Experience Package includes Aquarium admission, 4-D Theater and the Dolphin Show! Purchase tickets online to ensure entry at your desired time.