How Lauritzen Gardens Created Its Masterful Holiday Experience

Since 2017, Jennifer Evans, Victoria SchoellSchafer, and FadeUp have teamed up for Merry & Bright (formerly AGLOW), one of Omaha’s premier events for holiday lights. 

An Omaha Family Tradition

The team at Lauritzen Gardens has been working for decades to create a horticultural masterpiece. Starting as a public garden in 1982, it has grown into one of Omaha’s most popular attractions. If features over one hundred acres of artfully created (and immaculately kept) gardens in the heart of the city.

Lauritzen Gardens, along with its team, continues to grow in creativity and public outreach. One of its most successful yearly attractions is its holiday event, now called Merry & Bright.

Two of the garden’s senior staffers, Jennifer Evans and Victoria Schoell-Schafer, lead the team that produces Merry & Bright.

Evans is the Senior Director for Guest Experiences. She oversees all guest-facing functions of the garden. She also books and oversees all of Lauritzen’s events, both large and small.

Schoell-Schafer is the Senior Director of Horticulture. With training in both fine arts and landscape architecture, her team brings a wide variety of talents to the table:

  • Horticulturalists
  • Ecologists
  • Biologists
  • Graphic designers

She says, “We take our backgrounds and use them with plants.”

The garden’s holiday experience began as a yearly poinsettia show that, among other things, features a twenty-foot poinsettia tree in the plant display hall of the visitor’s center. It became an annual tradition for families. It was such a success that, in 2017, they decided to extend the show into evening hours.

Evans said, “If you’re going to be open in the evenings, of course, you have to be able to see what you’re showing off. And so, event lighting became an integral part of our plans.”


Schoell-Schafer said, “There aren’t a lot of indoor walkthroughs where you can see lights in Omaha. We felt like we had a unique opportunity to take our visitor’s center and conservatory and allow people to experience them at night.” 

Originally called AGLOW, Merry & Bright continues to grow in creativity and scope. As they had every other year, they brought Heath Marrinan of FadeUp Design Group into the creative process from the very beginning. 

Event Lighting for One of Omaha’s Largest Attractions 

There were three main spaces the team decided to use for Merry & Bright. The first space, the floral display hall in the visitor’s center, would feature the poinsettias. But the team wanted to make sure it was more than just a place to see flowers.

They decided the room would have a gingerbread theme for the 2019 year (they change it yearly), so the maintenance staff designed gingerbread houses where children could play and view passing model trains.

The patio sits just outside the floral display hall. They decided to transform it into the Family Chill Zone. There, guests would be able to spend time together eating s’mores and playing games like cornhole, ring toss, giant checkers, and giant Jenga.

Evans commented, “More than to attract people who are interested in gardens or lighting, we wanted a show that would be family-friendly and family-focused. We didn’t want people merely to walk through. We wanted them to stay and hang out.”

One of the most prominent features inside Lauritzen Gardens is the Marjorie K. Daugherty Conservatory. At 17,500 square feet, it encases their tropical and temperate house in glass. Schoell-Schafer commented, “The thing that’s great about the conservatory is it’s this nice warm place, and on a cold winter evening, it’s a refuge.”

The garden itself had been acquiring some lighting features of its own: Several large Chinese lanterns shaped like flamingos, frogs, and butterflies.

Lauritzen Garden presents some specific challenges for outside contractors who are getting to know the space. First, contractors need to understand that plants are the garden’s product. When installing anything, the plants must remain the main feature.

The next challenge is moisture. All of the plants are watered regularly, and the conservatory remains humid. Any equipment brought in needs to be able to stand up to that.

Time is always tight at Lauritzen Gardens as well. The gardens are open nearly every day, so contractors like FadeUp either must work overnight or discreetly during the day. And since their yearly chrysanthemum show precedes Merry & Bright, the turn-around time would have to be as efficient as possible.

Finally, as a non-profit organization, Lauritzen Gardens is dependent on donations to put the show on every year. Though it’s never been a problem, the exact budget numbers aren’t available until they’re nearly ready to start installing.

In the planning stages, the Lauritzen team found that FadeUp Design Group was up for the challenge.

Schoell-Schaeffer commented, “What’s exciting is Heath’s a very collaborative person. We bounce ideas back and forth. We walk through the space with him. Every year we try to outdo ourselves and be creative—on a tight budget. In working with Heath, he understands that reality. We don’t let the financial limitations hold us back in creative ideas. We up the game, but Heath finds creative ways to cut costs for us.”

Evans appreciates that FadeUp’s team continually considers how to improve the event. “They’re always thinking of new ideas for the garden long before the show even starts.”

Architectural, Foliage, and Outdoor Lighting Effects 

The FadeUp team got to work, lighting the three main spaces in ways that accomplished the Lauritzen Garden’s primary goals:

  • Work creatively within time and budget constraints
  • Create an environment where people will want to spend time
  • Do so in a way that respects both the plants and the guests

First, as visitors entered the exhibit, they were greeted by the event’s logo, painted on the wall with a custom gobo light FadeUp had created for Lauritzen Gardens.

In the floral display hall, FadeUp used the 60-foot peaked ceilings to hang lights that would paint huge moving snowflakes on the walls. Combined with up-lights set on the floors, the room would change colors from pink to purple to various shades of blue. Every time it switched to a deep blue and the largest snowflakes appeared, Schoell-Schafer saw children pretending to shiver from the “sudden cold.” The effect was especially child-friendly, reminding kids of the movie that had just hit theaters, Frozen II.

The twenty-foot poinsettia tree remained a challenge. They found creative ways to light it from every possible angle without obstructing anyone’s view and still allowing for the tree to receive regular watering.

The lighting helped Schoell-Schafer create the effect she and her team were after. “There was a real mood created in the floral display hall. People spent more time at the show, which for me, was a huge win.”

In the Family Chill Zone, FadeUp kept the boundaries of the patio defined through architectural up-lighting. He brought in strings of café lights to brighten the space where people could roast marshmallows over fire pits.

Since the area was close to the glass conservatory, it stayed bright with that building’s multi-colored indoor displays.

The conservatory itself has three sections.  

The Temperate House mimics a garden one would find in Charleston, South Carolina, or Savannah, Georgia. In this space, the team chose lighting effects of mostly traditional red, green, and white.  

However, the Tropical House brought in more daring colors: fuchsia, magenta, bright blues, greens, and purples. The Bismarck palm trees take light incredibly well, providing some of the most other-worldly views in the exhibit.  

Evans commented, “FadeUp’s equipment really washes the ceilings and the walls and all of the open space of those rooms … It’s just amazing the amount of color he’s able to produce.”

The final space, called the gallery, is a small event area, contained three Lite Brite trees a local builder customized for them.

Schoell-Schafer said, laughing, “In the end, I think for the amount of lighting that we did and the amount of time that we always have to do it, it was really impressive. And no one fully understands that except the team who does it. In the turn-around time we have, we get a lot done.”

An Omaha Success Story 

Merry & Bright saw 34,000 people in 2019 into 2020—the last day was January 5.

Heath said, “I gave my team a lot of creative freedom on this one. I trust them, and they do a good job. My guys really knocked it out of the park.”

Schoell-Schafer said, “The part that I love is how people react. Every team member works two evenings during the event, and I love it. People don’t know who I am, so I hear, ‘That’s so cool! How did they do this?’ I always like surprising people. It’s the same foundation, but we always make it new and fresh. And we get a lot of feedback that we succeed at that every year.”

Evans said, “People really loved the show. Our Facebook posts were really positive, and people want to come back year after year. That’s what we want to hear.”

When asked about working with FadeUp, Evans said, “Heath has always been great to work with. He’s a good listener. He likes to sit down and hear what you want. He doesn’t bring unnecessary suggestions. He knows where the budget stands and gets the challenges of our venue being open every day. He’s respectful. His staff works into the night, but when they can’t, they work discreetly, so they’re not disruptive to the daily business, which is wonderful.”

Additionally, she said, “Because we work with live things, leaving doors open can damage plants in the cold weather. The FadeUp team members are good stewards of our property.”

Omaha’s Premier Event Lighting Experts 

If you’re planning on bringing light to your event, and you want that event to affect people on a gut level, you should set a high bar for your lighting design team. You’ll want to know:

  • Will they think creatively?
  • Will they work within my budget?
  • Will they respect my event and the space we’re working in?

At FadeUp Design Group, these are our concerns too. We make it a conscious effort to bring beauty, life, and light to events of nearly any size—from weddings to corporate events to churches and beyond.

If you’re planning an event that you want to transform with light, contact FadeUp today.