There are holiday light displays and then there are holiday light displays.
"Illumination," the tree lights exhibit at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, heads the latter category, providing a luminous portal into the holiday landscape that has attracted tens of thousands of visitors since it first took center stage in 2013.
This year's Illumination debuts Friday, Nov. 17, and continues through Jan. 1, 2018.
"The hot new item this year is the Illu-medallion," said Sarah Sargent, arboretum manager of interpretation and exhibits.
Visitors who purchase the medallion will add to the already spectacular display with their own personal light, programmed to respond to and synchronize with the light show painting the trees and the outdoor museum's surroundings.
"As guests move from area to area at 'Illumination,' they become part of the show, making guests feel immersed in the experience," said John Featherstone, founder of Lightswitch, the lighting design firm behind the dazzling effects. "You become a source of light yourself."
"Illumination" started four years ago as a way "to bring people here to appreciate trees in the winter," Sargent said.
In its first year, "Illumination" attracted about 88,000 visitors. Last year, that number grew to 155,000, Sargent said.
Due to its increasing popularity, tickets are being sold for specific times and dates this year, she said.
Featherstone said "Illumination" continues to introduce novel approaches to lighting trees while creating new traditions.
"It requires lots and lots of planning," he said. "We are great believers in clarity of vision."
Visitors follow a milelong path that includes a walk up and down a hill while, among other things, finding opportunities to hug trees that seem to respond via light.
"Hug-a-tree is a simple notion. The longer you hug, the brighter the light," Featherstone said. "That tactile, visceral experience is a call to the arboretum's mission of 'champion of trees.'"
Visitors will encounter a returning feature called Treemagination, where light configurations suggest the trees are breathing. And Ornament Hill will be the setting for a swath of giant glowing orbs.
On Fridays through Sundays, musicians and dancers will perform in the arboretum's Ginkgo Room restaurant, with occasional performances conducted outdoors along the trail.
Also back this year with a new musical score is Symphony Woods, a display that features tree lights synchronized with classical music.
Sargent said 2016's new entry, Fantasy Forest, is returning with a few tweaks. Last year, white columns installed for the exhibit resembled trees and provided a visually intriguing canvas for lights to play off, she said.
"This year, we're exploring something more organic," Featherstone said.
Meadow Lake again will twinkle and glisten with a light show on the water's surface.
"You get these serpentine fingers of light spread out over the lake," he said. Wind and water movement result in a fluid, kinetic display.
Featherstone said Lightswitch has produced many outdoor exhibits.
The problems posed by mounting an outdoor show in a climate as unpredictable and potentially harsh as northern Illinois have been overcome with creative solutions. For example, snow falling on LED lights attached to trees doesn't melt.
"Ninety-five percent of the fixtures are LED. They don't get hot. The snow sticks to them and they freeze," he said.
When it snows or ices, on-site crew members dust off the precipitation to expose the lights, he said.
Lightswitch designers work in partnership with the Arlington Heights-based Intelligent Lighting Creations team to maintain the environmentally friendly LED displays.
Sargent said roads inside the arboretum will be closed to vehicles during Illumination "Illumination" to make it safer and easier for wheelchairs and strollers to navigate the terrain.
If the weather turns wintry, she said, it only enhances the exhibit.
"If it's snowing, misting or light rain, the lights catch and diffuse and it's a really cool experience," she said.