The holidays are a time for loved ones to join together. I hope you all had a wonderful Christmas and had a chance to relax. I took the weekend to spend time with my family in Duluth where the snow wasn’t so scarce but I’m back now in my city loft with new sweaters and a cozy fireplace to keep me company as I type.
Currently, I’m reflecting on the different activities this month has encouraged. December calls for gingerbread houses, holiday movie binge nights, and cocoa bombs but my favorite thing to do is explore venues covered in Christmas lights. The past couple of years, I’ve really gotten into looking at Christmas lights in honor of my late grandfather who used to decorate Nicolette Avenue, Duluth, and created various Christmas parade floats. If anyone understood the magic of Christmas, it was him.
Over the past couple of weeks, I ventured into both unknown and nostalgic places that lit up the night sky. Particularly, two locations were put together so differently that I wanted to compare the experiences. The first venue, The Arboretum (The Arb) isn’t that far from Paisley Park and resides on a college campus. Bentleyville, the second location, sits on the sparkling waters of Lake Superior near the North Shore. I have seen many light displays across the country but these were the grandest of the lot I toured this year in Minnesota. I felt it was necessary to write a “critical review” of my experiences as I do have my grandfather’s blood running through my veins. It was hard not to critique fallen or unlit displays after paying money to visit the seasonal lights. As I traveled through shining tunnels and glowing pathways of The Arb and Bentleyville, I looked for the magic of winter and sparkling displays to bring the joy of Christmas alive.
The gardens at The Arboretum may be frozen but the light displays bring plants back to life through lit grounds and nature displays. The Arb hasn’t been doing light displays for even a decade yet but it’s still a beautiful outside walk in the winter. Fifteen light displays cover half of a mile on the grounds of the U of M campus.
One thing I will say is that the “fifteen light displays” is a bit confusing because it isn’t always obvious when you have moved from one light display to another. As a first-time visitor, I mostly followed the crowds on a path that followed the next biggest glowing patch of land ahead of us. When I did notice the numbered signs explaining what garden and display you were walking through, I realized I had skipped at least three numbers in between. At one point I was so focused on figuring out where light display 4 through 7 was behind me that I wasn’t paying attention to the beautiful lights in front of me. Despite that, it was very enjoyable seeing all the themed displays. It was magical walking the grounds even in negative wind chilled temperatures. My favorite displays were even worth stopping for a few photos (seen on my Instagram’s reel).
To understand the layout, the half-mile trek starts at the main parking lot lodge and loops back around where visitors can purchase gifts and refreshments indoors. The U of M campus requires face masks inside all buildings and visitors must purchase tickets prior to arrival. The tickets act as a reservation system for your time slot to enter and for the parking lot. I appreciate that they were very organized and offered transportation systems for visitors that don’t have a vehicle. I thought the structure, parking lot, organization, and attendants were all very put together. It was a straightforward experience–minus the signage confusion mentioned above.
Something I didn’t care for was the amount they were charging at the cafe, bar, and gift shop after we purchased $15 tickets for admittance. Tickets I can understand because I felt like it was the experience and sights we were paying for in the end. It was the $7.50 s’more and two hot cocoas that cost $6.00 that made my face sour. My weekly 16 oz specialty mocha is about the same cost as the two small cocoas but the mocha involves more expensive ingredients. I can’t say that I agreed with how overpriced everything seemed once inside The Arb. I mean, the food was coming from a college cafeteria. It wasn’t like we were getting a Disney World experience for the prices they were charging.
Final thoughts on The Arb: it was worth visiting once for lights and picture opportunities. If I were to go again I’d be bringing my own cocoa to keep my hands warm while walking through the gardens. While the service, atmosphere, and lights were pleasant, the prices seemed rather ridiculous. If I were to purchase the same amount of food and drink that I received from Bentleyville for free, I would have easily spent an additional $30 on top of the admission fee I paid. Speaking of which, let’s dive into the next location.
Bentleyville in my childhood was a magical forest covered in lights that resided in a small neighborhood called Esko, MN. As I grew into a teenager, Bentleyville became a bigger operation that turned into Duluth’s “Tour of Lights.” Donation buckets and business sponsorships make it possible for Bentleyville to operate as a volunteer-run attraction. The business support provides food, drink, and souvenirs. As I understand it, the city of Duluth pays for the cost of the electricity as well. To be honest, I preferred its original location in the forest of Esko rather than its current location which is a wide-open park that sits on the canal of Lake Superior.
Duluth markets Bentleyville as a very family-friendly and couple’s date-night event. For $10, a family can park in the lot and enter the outdoor display for free. It’s affordable in the sense that the $10 fee pays for parking, popcorn, beverages, cookies, s’mores, photo opportunities, and the experience you get. The only additional charges are souvenirs. With the experience being free–minus parking–it makes the visit worth the while and makes up for where it lacks. Once inside the lit tunnels, the paths take visitors in a large circle around a giant metal Christmas tree in the very center. This makes me miss the old location all the more as you can see all the lights throughout your journey around the park due to the openness of the layout. Every year I see this display, I think of all the wasted space that sits in the middle of the park (see image below).
The biggest difference between Bentleyville and The Arb are the regulations in place. Unlike The Arb, the indoor gift shop at Bentleyville did not require face masks or occupancy limitations. Even without illness concerns, it was uncomfortable to move around Bentleyville’s tiny gift shop. One thing Bentleyville did well with its open space was the many different photo opportunities. The Arb had several but didn’t compete with the themed spots along the canal where couples and families could get a picture with the Christmas lights and the Aerial Lift Bridge.
Both are definitely worth visiting at least once if you are in the area. I wasn’t astounded by the light displays or gift shops. To be honest, both places had lights out, displays tipped over, and uncovered areas that lessened the magic as you walked along the paths. On top of that, the crowded areas of Bentleyville that already felt tight didn’t make for an enjoyable experience. Especially when there was so much wasted open space. Both places made it hard to not long for the atmosphere, authentic market, display, and experiences of the Cambria Christmas Market or the lights in St. Augustine. St. Augustine and Cambria focused on more than just the light displays. Each looked at making it an entire experience which made each visit better than the last. Something that was missing from both Cambria and St. Augustine was the snow. I do love a good Minnesota snow and Bentleyville and The Arb had plenty on the grounds for a whimsical effect.
Other than having high expectations, I do find myself looking for magical events, services, and shops that will elevate each of my experiences. While well-traveled, it does take away from the simple things in life. If you’re looking for a cheaper light display near the North Shore where you can hit the mountains to ski, and a quaint overnight stay at a BnB, then I suggest going to Bentleyville. For people looking to spend a little more and want more of a secluded nature-Esque path filled with lights near the Mall of America, Paisley Park, and lots of shopping then I suggest The Arb. It’s not that I didn’t like visiting Bentleyville or The Arb, it’s just that I had such incredible experiences already and the magic just wasn’t there for me. Don’t let my opinion detour you though. Check out either place and let me know what you thought of your visit in the comments below!
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