The brains behind the bulbs: Cathy Fitzgerald lights up the Botanical Garden

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For the sixth straight year, the Norfolk Botanical Garden has hosted the Million Bulb Walk. In 2015, more than 23,000 people attended the walk-through event.

For the sixth straight year, the Norfolk Botanical Garden has hosted the Million Bulb Walk. In 2015, more than 23,000 people attended the walk-through event. (Photo courtesy of Norfolk Botanical Garden)

For 23 years, Norfolk Botanical Garden has hosted the Garden of Lights, a drive-through illumination of the garden grounds that has become a holiday tradition. But thanks to Cathy Fitzgerald, for the sixth straight year, the Garden is also hosting the Million Bulb Walk, which adds a new dimension to the event by allowing families to walk through the light show by foot.

Though the walk-through light show started in 2010, Fitzgerald, the vice president of operations and development, came up with the idea for the Million Bulb Walk nearly two decades ago.

The trees, which are wrapped very specifically by a dedicated light crew, can sometimes take more than a day to complete. (Mariah Pohl/Southside Daily)

The garden trees, which are wrapped very specifically by a dedicated light crew, can sometimes take more than a day to complete. (Mariah Pohl/Southside Daily)

“I’m a walker, and when I first started working here 20 years ago and saw that they have a drive-through light show, I stayed here after work and walked through the lights on my own,” she said. “Walking through the lights was a completely different experience than driving. I was so amazed.”

But her attempts to open the walking option to the public failed for many years due to safety fears. It was not until she asked a Botanical Garden board member to join her walk through the lights that she made progress.

“I worked with board member Greg Marshall who also likes walking. I asked him to join me walking through the lights, and at the end of the walk he asked how he could help me,” she said. “I told him I wanted him to help me open this to the public.”

Marshall helped Fitzgerald plan an exclusive, ticketed event with about 250 people in the Garden’s Rose Hall facility to eat, drink and walk through the lights. The event, held the night before Thanksgiving, was a hit.

“People grabbed their wine and their beer and strolled through the lighted gardens,” she said. “By the end of the evening, the CEO came to me and told me to make it open to the public. It was fantastic.”

That first year, nearly 5,000 people attended the walk-through event. Last year, that number grew to more than 23,000, with another 100,000 joining for the drive-through event.

Since the garden began its light show more than 20 years ago, the've switched to nearly all LED bulbs. (Mariah Pohl/Southside Daily)

Since the garden began its light show more than 20 years ago, it has switched to nearly all LED light bulbs. (Mariah Pohl/Southside Daily)

“There are lines almost every night. People will drive all the way up from North Carolina,” said Fitzgerald. “It has really become a social gathering for people in the community.”

Not only has the Garden’s light show become a favorite tradition, it has also been named 8th in Best Public Light Displays by USA Today. At two-miles long, it’s no surprise the illuminated walking path takes more than two months to set up.

“We start preparing the lights in September. We have our own staff and a dedicated light crew,” explained Fitzgerald. “The path is laid out a little differently each year. We wrap the lights very specifically. It takes days to wrap a single tree.”

The Million Bulb Walk is open through Wednesday night from 4 to 8:30p.m. Starting on Thanksgiving the drive-through Dominion Garden of Lights will be open from 5:30-10 p.m. through Dec. 31.

Pohl may be reached at mariah@localvoicemedia.com

 

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