A Year-Round Guide to Franklin and Nantahala

He’s the real deal, agree two siblings bounding out of Santa’s gazebo at the Greensboro Science Center’s Winter Wonderlights event. How else would he know about flamingos’ superpower — that

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

He’s the real deal, agree two siblings bounding out of Santa’s gazebo at the Greensboro Science Center’s Winter Wonderlights event. How else would he know about flamingos’ superpower — that

Greensboro’s Wild Winter Wonderland

He’s the real deal, agree two siblings bounding out of Santa’s gazebo at the Greensboro Science Center’s Winter Wonderlights event. How else would he know about flamingos’ superpower — that they can survive in the Andes Mountains when temperatures dip to 20 degrees and their lake freezes? And in Tanzania, where water temperatures rise all the way to 140 degrees? He’s obviously traveled the world!

Santa lets out a hearty belly laugh. “I like to relate my conversations with kids to the animals we have here at the Greensboro Science Center.” Also known as Ron Durham, Santa moonlights as a docent in the off-season. “If they tell me they love dinosaurs, I explain how the cassowary is more similar to ancient dinosaurs than most other birds.”

Maybe it’s because Santa adds a touch of magic to the air. Or maybe it’s the holiday “fountains,” where sparkling lights simulate water dancing to holiday classics from the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. It could be the soft snow that drifts above children who are filled with wonder. Either way, at the Greensboro Science Center’s (GSC’s) Winter Wonderlights event, the Claus-o-meter points squarely at 100.


Inspiring innovation

Since 2017, the Greensboro Science Center has hosted a “Gamechanger Challenge,” where all staff are encouraged to submit a new idea. The winner of the Gamechanger Challenge gets an award, and their idea is executed. “This is a special place to work,” says Beth Almy, Vice President of Creative Services. “Our entire team is passionate, whether they’re in maintenance or education or they’re a keeper.”

Several years ago, two staff members independently came up with the idea for a holiday light display. The judges loved it. Determined to make the idea a reality, the Greensboro Science Center partnered with an events production company experienced in setting up cutting-edge light shows.

Snap a picture — or 10. There are endless photo opportunities. Photography courtesy of Greensboro Science Center

The result of their hard work is an inspiring display of holiday cheer that has quickly become a tradition for families who come not just from across town, but from across the country. This marks year four of Winter Wonderlights. “When we launched the event during COVID, it was one of the only events you could do safely,” says Almy. “We had people travel here from 43 states.”

These days, the magic begins around mid-October, when the first elf crew arrives on the scene. That’s when Almy started getting Facebook messages from her friends in surrounding neighborhoods: “Why are the lights still on at 10 p.m.?” And, “It’s Halloween! Why do you have a tree up already?’”

Stroll through the Forest of Light, one of 15 zones at Winter Wonderlights. Photography courtesy of Greensboro Science Center

Almy explains: It takes almost four weeks to install Winter Wonderlights, which consists of four shows and about 15 different zones that blend seamlessly into one another, from the Wiseman Aquarium with 18 giant, illuminated jellyfish, to the Great Hall, where the fountain show takes place; there’s even an interactive snow wall and indoor sock-skating rink. On any given night, anywhere from 15 to 30 people arrive around dusk and work through the night, stringing lights and coordinating music with a tech crew.

At the end of their visit, Winter Wonderlights visitors leave filled with holiday cheer and reinvigorated in their enthusiasm for the Greensboro Science Center. “We’re not the same place we were 10, 20, or 30 years ago. It brings out an audience that realizes there’s so much more to see than they remembered from when their kids were little,” she says. “They come for the lights, but they come back for the science.”

Slide and glide on the indoor sock-skating rink. Photography courtesy of Greensboro Science Center

As the GSC expands, so does Winter Wonderlights, which, including the indoor elements, usually takes about 90 minutes to explore. Two years ago, the Revolution Ridge display opened on the boardwalk with lighted versions of the cassowary, okapi, and Pygmy hippo. During Winter Wonderlights, most of the animals who live at the GSC are tucked away. “The welfare of our animals is our priority, so we make sure everybody is safe and sound,” says Almy.

Down at the lower plaza, a Fantasia-like penguin orchestra starts up every five minutes or so, and there are also lights on the Shearer Animal Hospital & S.I. Tannenbaum Family Conservation Center. “One of the things we try to do is celebrate some of the things we teach here,” Almy says. “Like the starry night area, where you’re enveloped by quiet classical music and surrounded by lights that are a nod to our outer space programming. While it’s a holiday celebration, we’re also celebrating science and the beauty of nature.”


Bask in the glow of the 18-foot-tall gingerbread house. Photography courtesy of Greensboro Science Center

Around the state

Step into a heartwarming North Carolina celebration at Winter Wonderlights. The GSC’s charming barn pays tribute to the beauty of the Tar Heel State, featuring an immersive video journey from the mountains to the coast. Wander through the farmyard adorned with native North Carolina pine trees, and embark on an engaging scavenger hunt. It’s an educational adventure for all ages, revealing the fascinating world of North Carolina’s state symbols in a delightful and festive setting. Experience local magic and the spirit of the season right here at the GSC’s Winter Wonderlights.

Back inside the GSC, there’s a final stop before visitors head across the parking lot to the carousel (a ride is included with the price of admission). The Dino Disco in the Prehistoric Party Zone is complete with disco balls, lava lamp projections, and holiday dance music. “It’s one last dance party,” Almy says with a laugh.

As the night draws to a close and families make their way back to their cars, they pass by Relativity, a new public art endowment by sculptor David Hess. All lit up, it’s easy to see what Almy likes best about the work of art: No matter where you’re standing in relationship to the sculpture, it looks different – it changes completely if you move even the slightest bit.

The same could be said for Winter Wonderlights, which gives animal lovers a chance to see the Greensboro Science Center in a whole new light. “That’s the nature of science and art,” Almy says. “By learning new things, you change your perspective and learn something different every time.”

This story was published on Nov 03, 2023

Robin Sutton Anders

Robin Sutton Anders is a writer based in Greensboro.