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October 20, 2014

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Holiday cactus garden lights set to open at Ethel M Chocolates

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Dylan Scott

Steve Bowdoin tends to the holiday lights at Ethel M’s cactus garden. Each year for the past five years, he has planned and set up most of the garden’s holiday display, which opens Tuesday.

Chocolate Wonderland

The holiday lights display at Ethel M's cactus garden will automated reindeer grazing throughout its plants. The holiday cactus garden opens Tuesday. Admission is free. Launch slideshow »

Beyond the Sun

Map of Ethel M Chocolates

Ethel M Chocolates

2 Cactus Garden Drive, Henderson

More than six weeks of hard work and long hours will end for Steve Bowdoin on Tuesday when his meticulously crafted holiday light display in the cactus garden at Ethel M Chocolates is illuminated for the public.

The hard work for the garden’s caretaker is over, and now, he gets to enjoy it.

“I’m ready to turn the lights on and be done with this part,” said Bowdoin, who has tended to the garden for the past five years. His stint began after he retired from 25 years of working at the chocolate factory.

“I love the garden, but I get tired about now,” he said.

For 17 years, the garden, home to more than 300 species native to a desert climate, has been restyled over the holidays as a wonderland populated by tens of thousands of lights and an assortment of holiday characters.

For the past five years, Bowdoin has been the mind behind the design. Planning begins in August, he said, and he tries to add a new and unexpected element every year. This year, the display features 3-D LED lights, which will simulate snowfall as guests approach the garden’s entrance. Using the lights will also reduce the amount of power the light display consumes.

More than 500,000 lights have been carefully wrapped around the cacti and other plants, a process that has been ongoing since mid-September, seven days a week. Bowdoin and a small crew of “magic elves” have been working 10 hours or more as the opening has neared, he said, taking pains to minimize damage to the garden’s plants.

The light display has gotten bigger every year, Bowdoin said. Eventually topping 1 million lights, he added, “would be cool.”

Part of his satisfaction comes from seeing his vision realized, while visitors provide the rest.

“You can see the excitement in their eyes,” Bowdoin said, “and that’s what drives me to do it every year.”

Jennifer Gudgel, director of gourmet chocolate at Ethel M, said Bowdoin has followed the tradition of the factory’s founder, Forrest Mars. Like Mars, who built the facility after he supposedly “retired” at Mars Inc. and named it after his mother. Bowdoin has also remained dedicated to the company despite officially retiring.

Ethel M’s expects more than 100,000 people to visit the light display this year, she said. Admission is free.

“We really believe in working with our community,” Gudgel said. “It’s become a Vegas tradition. It’s just pretty awesome.”

After a lighting ceremony Tuesday, the exhibit will be open daily through New Year’s Eve. Ethel M’s Chocolate Factory is located at 2 Cactus Garden Drive in Henderson.

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