Garvan Woodland Gardens on pace for record attendance for holiday lights

HOT SPRINGS, Ark. — Garvan Woodland Gardens is always one of the busiest places during the holiday season, but never quite like this.

The attraction is on pace for record attendance this year, and its staff is considering short-term and long-term plans to account for the influx in visitors.

“We’re up 38 percent over last year at this same time,” the gardens’ executive director, Robert Bledsoe, said.

Even on an “off-peak day,” the gardens had lots of visitors Tuesday, including a group of coworkers from First Community Trust’s Little Rock office.

“It’s family,” one woman explained. “Everyone gets to do their thing, walk their pace, and look at the lights that they want to see. It’s just beautiful, all through the walk, all through the trails.”

“But the weekends are a little busy,” another woman added. “So, you can go at your own pace a little better on the—during the week.”

The gardens sold out last Saturday and expect to sell out again this coming weekend. Bledsoe says the reason it has been so busy this year is clear: clear skies. “Being an outdoor venue like we are, we’re very dependent upon the weather,” he explained. “And the weather this season has been spectacular, and as a result, our attendance has been spectacular.”

The gardens started selling advance tickets online this year and created an express entrance lane in the driveway to allow online ticket-holders easier entrance to the parking lot. Bledsoe said other changes have made accessing the grounds easier.

“We had some booths set up in the early part of the first part of the road up here, and we’re finding that any time that we slow traffic, it causes a backup,” he mentioned. “So, we’re learning to be able to get folks in, get them parked, get them settled, and then get them into the gardens as quickly as possible.”

While the impact of traffic on the surrounding neighborhood may be reduced, the additional visitors are putting stress on the gardens’ parking lots. “And I’m not sure exactly how we want to address that long-term,” Bledsoe added, “because we want this to stay a woodland garden and we want it to stay as natural and as pristine as we possibly can make it.”

With good weather in the forecast, the gardens will do something they have never done before. “Beginning Friday night, we’ll be limiting the number of tickets we sell, and we will not be using any on-site ticket sales,” Bledsoe said.

All the ticket revenue means Garvan Woodland Gardens can offer more educational programs and more displays. The current setup features five million lights and takes more than two months to install each year. Bledsoe said a strong holiday season will only help make the gardens more awe-inspiring in years to come.

“It’s an ongoing process,” he said. “We’re not finished, ever, with trying to make that experience really special, whether it’s in the spring or this time of year during the holiday lights.”