Magic Christmas in Lights at Bellingrath Gardens

Bellingrath tree lights and fountain

This weekend, on a whim, we decided to visit Bellingrath Gardens, located just outside Mobile, Alabama, for Magic Christmas in Lights. The grand holiday light display features three million lights throughout a 65-acre property. Visitors walk along a path that winds through the estate, transformed by lights of every color in a variety of scenes.

It’s truly impressive. My only regret is not having brought a real camera along, so photos included in this post are from my phone.

blue trees

Bellingrath Gardens and Home is an amazing place to visit during daylight hours any time of year. The picturesque estate along the Fowl River is famous for its beautiful, azalea-rich grounds. Countless other varieties of flowers and plants bloom in abundance, too. I visited about 10 years ago and have recommended it ever since to anyone traveling to the Mobile area.

under_the_sea_lights

This weekend was my first time to visit during Magic Christmas in Lights. I did a little bit of research and learned the holiday lights display started 20 years ago, inspired by a similar event at Georgia’s Callaway Gardens. It’s grown through the years, and last year USA Today named Magic Christmas in Lights at Bellingrath Gardens as one of the top 10 light displays in America.

Bellingrath swans

What I didn’t know when we decided to put the kids in the car to be tourists for the night is that this (the weekend before Christmas) typically represents the busiest nights of the season for Magic Christmas in Lights. We had a very long wait to get into the parking lot as cars lined the two-lane road leading into the property, and then another wait in line for tickets. The traffic added about 45 minutes to our trip.

Lesson learned: Buy your tickets in advance online, plan to get their early, and if possible visit on a weeknight – or any night other than the busiest of the year!  One bonus – the Coca-Cola Christmas Truck and a costumed polar bear were on hand for photo opps just outside the Gardens on the night we visited.

Coca Cola Christmas

Walking through the lights with my husband and daughters, taking pictures, and enjoying one of the few cool nights we’ve had during this unseasonably hot fall made up for the long wait. Christmas music and hot chocolate for sale added to the experience. This place is sure to put even the biggest Grinch around in the Christmas spirit!

Magic Christmas in Lights is open nightly from 5-9 p.m. CST through January 2, 2016, with the exception of Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. Tickets are $15 for adults, $7 for children ages 5-12, and free for children 4 and under.

A Not-So-Scary Boo at the Gulf Breeze Zoo

As a freelance writer, it is always exciting when I see my work in print. These days it’s often online only, but this weekend my byline appeared in real, hard copy newsprint. Serious, investigative reporting, you may ask? Well, not exactly, but it was fun to show the kids.

I originally wrote the article about Boo at the Zoo that appeared in the Pensacola News Journal for a Santa Rosa County, Florida tourism program, The Beaches to Woodlands Tour. Beaches to Woodlands includes dozens of events showcasing the diverse natural beauty and culture of the county throughout the month of October. Most (if not all) of the activities are family friendly, including Boo at the Zoo. So yesterday, we decided to check it out. We made our way to the Gulf Breeze Zoo, where we spent about two hours or so seeing the animals and taking part in Halloween-themed activities.

Trick-or-Treat-Trail

Part of the fun of Boo at the Zoo is the Trick-or-Treat Trail, which invites kids to wear costumes and visit stations set up throughout the zoo to collect candy. Our three – dressed as Doc McStuffins, a peacock and a mermaid – enjoyed the chance to don their costumes early and mingle with the likes of Elsa, Jake and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. It was definitely a unique way to experience the Zoo, which spans 50 acres and includes a petting zoo, train rides and a chance to feed many of the animals.

Giraffe-at-Gulf-Breeze-Zoo

Tiger-at-Gulf-Breeze-Zoo

A budgie aviary was new since I last visited the Gulf Breeze Zoo. It was like stepping into a giant bird cage, surrounded by a few hundred of your closest feathered friends. The kids loved it. So did the birds that we fed, and the makers of hand sanitizer.

feeding-budgies

Some of the extra activities available during Boo at the Zoo include face painting, bounce houses and balloon-making clowns. At $12 per ticket (not including train rides), Boo at the Zoo is a little pricey for a family of five, but comparatively speaking fairly reasonable versus other zoos we’ve visited in the Southeast.

zoo-sign

Look closely: The last line of this sign made me laugh.

Boo at the Zoo continues next Saturday and Sunday, October 25-26, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. CDT if you want to go. For information on other Beaches to Woodlands Tour events, visit the official Tour website.

Beaches to Woodlands Tour “Tees Off” Bubba-Style

Fall has always been my favorite time of year on the Gulf Coast. For starters, the weather is pleasant – still warm enough to enjoy the beaches and outdoor activities, but not so hot you have sweat running down your neck the minute you step outside. Also, the beaches tend to be less crowded, which makes for a peaceful day in the sun, and you spend less time waiting at restaurants and popular attractions. For those who travel to the Coast, better rates are typically available at hotels and rental properties after Labor Day.

What’s not to love, right?

Well, this year, I’m even more excited about fall. Why? Because of the 11th Annual Beaches to Woodlands Tour, a month-long collection of events in Santa Rosa County, Florida. Santa Rosa County includes Milton and Navarre Beach, and it’s less than an hour’s drive from Pensacola and Destin. I have had the opportunity to cover some of the events as a freelance writer helping to promote the Tour. Although I am compensated for articles I’ve written, I am not asked or paid to blog about these events. I am telling you about them because I am truly excited about Beaches to Woodlands this year. It may be because my kids are now old enough to get out and enjoy some of the family-friendly activities going on throughout the month of October.

aerial-view-Bubba-Watson-corn-maze

One of the first events on the Beaches to Woodlands Tour is actually open this weekend through November 2, with the exception of Halloween. It’s the Sweet Seasons Farms Corn Maze. It’s been generating a lot of buzz because the corn maze, viewed from above, depicts two-time Masters Champion Bubba Watson swinging a golf club. Watson is from Santa Rosa County – a little town called Bagdad, to be exact. So the corn maze is a nice tribute to him. He’s tweeted about the event a few times already. Pensacola News Journal shared this video on pnj.com that tells a little bit about the making of the maze and what you can expect if you visit this year.

If getting lost in a corn maze is not your thing, there are other Beaches to Woodlands Tour events to suit a multitude of interests, including art, history, running, biking, and marine science. Take a look at thebeachestowoodlandstour.com for more information. It’s worth checking out if you are going to be in Northwest Florida this fall. Hopefully I can share some real, live photos and updates when we head out to experience some of the fun.