Wonderland Express is unique in that it is a railroad garden which includes 80 miniature replicas of Chicago area buildings and landmarks. Immersed among (dwarf) seasonal plant and greens, and with its buildings made out of all natural materials, Wonderland Express is a gorgeous feast for the senses. It’s no wonder Wonderland Express has been named by USA Today as one of the top holiday model train displays in the nation.
One of the wonderful things about Wonderland Express is that it is truly enjoyable for all ages. Toddlers and preschoolers will be enchanted by the trains, of course. Older children are engaged by the Wonderland Express bingo scavenger hunt given out to all who want one, complete with stickers to mark what they find. This year, they challenged us to find five (fairly small) snowmen placed among the display. There’s also indoor snow that falls, a waterfall, and a whimsical gingerbread village. Did we mention Thomas the Tank Engine, too? (See him below in our Instagram post.)
And us older folk: well, if you love nature, beauty, and the city of Chicago, there’s something for you. If you enjoy Chicago sports teams and Chicago sports history, there’s plenty for you to enjoy (old Chicago Stadium, Soldier Field, and Wrigley Field are all among the landmarks – and more). Pop culture? Yep, plenty of references. Architecture? An abundance of that.
Although it might seem as if you need a lot of knowledge about Chicago and the surrounding areas to truly enjoy the experience, the exhibit also includes a lot of educational info about the various landmarks and locations. It can be fun to go to Wonderland Express before going into the city, as it provides a great overview of the various city neighborhoods, its diversity and rich history.
Wonderland Express is truly one of our favorite holiday destinations in Chicago, mainly because there’s always something new to see (they always add something to the display each year). That’s just one of the reasons we go back year after year. The detail that goes into each building is something I continue to marvel at – even though we’ve been at least four times.
I’ve written before (a LONG TIME AGO) about visiting the Chicago Botanic Garden and other attraction on Chicago’s North Shore. Every summer, CBG presents the Model Railroad Garden, which is an outdoor whimsical, interactive display. The Model Railroad Garden features national parks, historical buildings, and other notable places and spaces from across the United States. It has water features (including Old Faithful which erupts) and a tremendous variety of plant life within it. So if you enjoy Wonderland Express, be sure to plan a trip in the summer. One reason I mention this is that it might be worth it for your family to buy a membership to CBG if you think you will return.
- If you can time your visit for the late afternoon, it’s a great time to go because you will get to see the gardens lit up after dark – a beautiful lights display. If you time it right, you could plan to spend a whole day here.
- Check the schedule for special events during your visit. When we were there, holiday movies were playing in the auditorium. This can be a nice place to take a break if your kiddo needs one.
- There is food for sale in the garden (and we love their cafe!) but you can bring in your own food as well.
- There’s more to see than Wonderland Express. Winter is a great time to go into the greenhouses which have gorgeous plant life from all over the world, including a habitat that feels like a tropical rainforest and one that includes desert flora. These also feel good on a cold day! Stroller friendly, too.
- Be prepared to take A LOT of photos. A great place for family pics, too.
- Dress warmly. Although the display is inside a building, you have to walk between buildings to get there. And it helps to be prepared in case you want to take a hike around the grounds, which are beautiful no matter the season.
If you go:
Location: The Chicago Botanic Garden is located in north suburban Glencoe, which is about 15 miles north of the city. It’s about a 30-45 minute drive depending on where you’re coming from. It’s an easy drive, with an exit near the Edens Expressway. (There’s plenty to do in this area – the Kohl Children’s Museum, lots of shopping, Wildlife Discovery Center, and more to make a visit here.)
Admission: There is no fee to enter Chicago Botanic Garden, but it costs $20 per car to park on weekdays; $25 per car on weekends and federal holidays (includes tax). If you’re coming from the city, you can also take the Metra. It is a 15-minute walk downhill and uphill to the train station.
Wonderland Express has an additional fee. If you can plan your trip for a Tuesday, that’s a great deal: it’s half price.
2018 Pricing: Member/Nonmember:
Seniors 62+: $8/$10
Children 3 – 12: $8/$10
Children 2 and under are free.
Wonderland Express typically opens the day after Thanksgiving and remains open through the week after New Year’s. In 2018, these hours are:
November 23 – December 21, 2018, 10 a.m. – 5 p.m.
December 22 – January 6, 2019, 10 a.m. – 7 p.m.