Volunteers help light up Winter Wonderscape


Volunteers and ISU retirees Bob Catus (construction services), right, and Diane Meyer (grants hub) work to prepare sections of a large holiday tree they'll assemble for Winter Wonderscape at Reiman Gardens. Photos by Christopher Gannon.

Winter Wonderscape has become an Ames holiday tradition, and Dec. 1 marks the start of its fourth year at Reiman Gardens. The lights, decorations and festive feel are hallmarks of the event, but none of it would be possible without the hard work of volunteers.

Winter Wonderscape

Time-reserved tickets may be purchased for shows every Thursday, Friday and Saturday in December, beginning Friday, Dec. 1. Tickets ($15 general admission, $13 for members and ISU students, $7 for those 2-12 years) can only be purchased online. Entry times start at 5 p.m. and the show closes at 9 p.m.

A small army of volunteers work throughout November to decorate Reiman Gardens' grounds. And more help ensures every Thursday through Saturday evening in December is a success. Finding 336 volunteers is not always easy but volunteer coordinator Kimberly Hope said this year the holiday spirit seems to be carrying from season to season.

"Because of all of the Halloween events we have during October, we had a lot of community engagement -- and it carried over to Winter Wonderscape," she said. "We also have really good success with the athletic teams who enjoy volunteering."

Hope said the Cyclone swimming and diving and soccer teams have volunteered for several shifts. Volunteers commit to two-hour shifts and receive weather-related training.

"They build their own community and a lot of them have become very close friends," Hope said. "We have multigenerational friendships being made because we have a lot of retirees, but also we have Iowa State students and students from Ames High School."

Transforming the gardens

Planning for Winter Wonderscape begins before all the decorations are put away the previous year in January.

"During the show this year, we will be looking to see what works and what doesn't," said Reiman Gardens horticulture director Sarah Rummery.


Student employees at Reiman Gardens install a fountain light display for Winter Wonderscape.

Members of the horticulture department meet with Reiman Gardens staff to discuss what will remain, what will change and what new things may be added for next year. Monthly meetings with horticulture staff follow to generate ideas leading up to October. Supplies and decorations are taken out of storage from the old ice arena once flower bulbs are planted and irrigation pipes are cleared. The focus is on the more intricate decorations.

Five members of the horticulture department worked on the project this month along with eight student gardeners, who provide about 100 total hours of labor each week. They are joined by numerous community volunteers, transportation services and facilities planning and management (FPM) staff. FPM has individuals with tree climbing certifications to reach the tallest points at the gardens, and community volunteers must pass a safety course to climb up the 10-foot ladders used to hang decorations.

Horticulture staff determine the installation timeline, mapping each step on a giant whiteboard. Rummery said beginning Nov. 1, assembling Winter Wonderscape takes four to six hours of staff time each day. Small teams work morning and afternoon, but they caught a break with above-average temperatures throughout much of November.

"We can feel our fingers," Rummery said with a laugh. "We use a tremendous amount of zip ties to keep everything together and secure. They don’t work as well when your fingers are numb, so I think we have been getting it up faster because we don’t have to take breaks to warm up."

The Design Social Club creates motion graphics and animations for projection onto the multitiered wall on the west side of the gardens.

"The students use a variety of different tools to create these animations, but the overall idea is that they are fun, visually engaging and bring a sense of warmth and activity to the location," said graphic design associate professor Alex Braidwood.

Rummery said she's impressed by the support Reiman Gardens receives for its events with proceeds making improvements possible. Electrical infrastructure has increased over the years to support the impressive power needs, and the concrete sidewalks have been improved for accessibility and safety.

New for 2023

Rummery said many favorites return this year, but there are some new additions. Tulip flowers with four- to six-foot petals will make their debut in a field giving off impressive light, and the lake display will add lights. The disco balls hanging from trees have been moved to a new location because their previous location was planted as a woodland garden this summer.