Holiday lights at the seventh annual Gardens Aglow at the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens are on view through Jan. 1. Photo by Brianna Soukup / Portland Press Herald

Gardens Aglow, the annual lights display at Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens in Boothbay, drew slightly more visitors than last year, though the organization hopes the attraction is able to return to its original walking format next winter.

This year, just over 22,000 vehicles carrying an estimated 88,000 people visited the Gardens Aglow display — a roughly 1% increase in ticket sales from 2020 when 21,800 vehicles, or about 87,100 people, drove through the display, according to Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens President and CEO Gretchen Ostherr.

When Gardens Aglow operated as a walking attraction in 2019, 100,134 people visited.

Ostherr said she’s pleased with how the attraction grew and improved this year because the organization had more time to create a more immersive display for those driving through rather than walking.

“Last year, we had to pivot at the last moment, just like everyone else did, because we were responding in the first year of the pandemic,” she said. “This year we had more planning time and we were able to create something special. As one of our guests said: ‘It was an experience designed for driving,’ because creating an immersive experience for someone in a car is different than if someone is walking.”

The drive-thru route this year, which ran from Nov. 20 to Jan. 1, was just over a mile long and included about 300 sculptures and three 100-foot tunnels, said Ostherr. In total, the display featured over 650,000 energy efficient LED lights, giving the gardens a $120 energy bill for the six-week event. If laid end to end, those lights would stretch over 70 miles – about the distance between Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens and Old Orchard Beach.


A car makes its way through a tunnel of holiday lights at the seventh annual Gardens Aglow in November. Brianna Soukup / Portland Press Herald

Ostherr said making Gardens Aglow a drive-thru attraction where visitors coasted through the display and didn’t leave their vehicles both opened the event to visitors of all ages and those with mobility limitations and minimized the risk of transmitting COVID-19.

“Many people liked the driving event, especially people who had either young or older people they wanted to bring because it’s much more accessible,” said Ostherr. “Some folks also liked the fact that they were able to stay warm the whole time.”

Despite the positive feedback the drive-thru format received, Ostherr said she doesn’t believe the organization could operate walking and driving versions at once. Traditionally, the walking Gardens Aglow display takes visitors through the gardens themselves whereas the drive-thru format follows the periphery of the gardens where paved access roads are available, according to Ostherr.

“Some of the driving version also goes through the parking lots, so if we wanted to offer a walking version, we wouldn’t be able to have people park in the parking lots, and that’s the biggest logistical hurdle,” Ostherr said.

Regardless of whether the COVID-19 pandemic is ongoing next winter, Ostherr said Gardens Aglow will return because of the positive impact it has on other businesses in the region.

“The gardens have become an economic driver for the Boothbay peninsula, and we take our role and the impact we have on businesses in the area very seriously,” said Ostherr. “We want to do anything we can to help support commerce in the Boothbay region and the Midcoast.”


Roskva, one of the Guardians of the Seeds by Thomas Dambo at Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens, stands among trees covered in holiday lights Friday for the seventh annual Gardens Aglow. Photo by Brianna Soukup / Portland Press Herald

Gardens Aglow began in 2015 when the botanical gardens wanted to find a way to keep their workers employed for longer in the year and bring more tourists into the Boothbay region for longer in the year.

Stefanie McElman, owner of the Harbour Towne Inn in Boothbay Harbor, said she went from having no guests in the winter before Gardens Aglow to having all 10 of her rooms full when the attraction began.

“We stay open year-round, but things are very slow,” said McElman. “Typically, we die right after Columbus Day because we’re such a tourist town. In the winter if we have a guest, it’s because people are traveling for funerals, visiting family, or looking at houses for sale. During Gardens Aglow we’re full most of the time. It’s amazing how many people it draws.”

McElman said most of her Gardens Aglow guests are from Maine or New England.

Blaisette Gauthier, a Flagship Inn and Suites customer service representative, said she sees similar trends as soon as Gardens Aglow opens.

“We get quite a few quests over the weekends and Gardens Aglow gives us more sold-out weekends,” said Gauthier, who has 82 rooms available at her Boothbay Harbor hotel.

Aside from bringing visitors to Boothbay during the winter, Gauthier said the buzz Gardens Aglow creates helps “revitalize” the area during the otherwise slow season.

“The town comes alive and it’s so magical because everyone decorates now too and there’s Christmas cheer everywhere,” said McElman.

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