Biltmore exhibition immerses visitors in world of 'Downton Abbey'

J. H. Osborne • Dec 1, 2019 at 9:00 AM

ASHEVILLE, N.C. — Welcome to Downton.

If you’re a fan of the popular television series “Downton Abbey” (and/or its recent follow-up feature film), head to Biltmore Estate through April 7 and you’ll come as close as you can to visiting the Crawley family and their below-stairs staff.

Visit Lady Mary’s bedroom. Take a tour of Mrs. Patmore’s kitchen. Peek inside Mr. Carson’s room and take a gander at the Servants’ Hall — complete with that wall of bells used to summon staff upstairs. The most sumptuous set is the dining room.

Those are all actual sets you can walk through at Biltmore’s Amherst event center, located adjacent to the estate’s Deerpark restaurant. And while impressive, those are just the tip of the iceberg. Speaking of icebergs, the exhibition features profiles of major characters along with actual costumes and props from the film. Amid Lord Grantham’s personal items on display is the fateful telegram featured in the opening moments of the series opener: word arriving that his heir has been confirmed among those lost in the sinking of the Titanic.

I’ve toured The Downton Exhibition twice and spent about 90 minutes both times. And that was going through at a fast pace. I’d prefer to linger for about three hours. But it is crowded. After all, it also is Christmas at Biltmore. One of the most impressive parts of the exhibition is a room that immerses visitors into various rooms from Downton. All the wall space is actually screen space, and film projected onto it switches from the sitting room to the library and so on. You’re welcomed to the exhibition by Mr. Carson via a short film. As you exit, another film featuring characters from Downton bids you goodbye. There’s a large gift shop with a wide range of Downton-inspired items.

In a second location, Biltmore Legacy in Antler Hill Village, the exhibition experience continues with a display of more than 50 costumes from the series’ six-season run, as worn by actors such as Michelle Dockery, Hugh Bonneville and Dame Maggie Smith. Guests will also get to view official costumes from the movie, as worn by the Royal Family.

“Downton Abbey: The Exhibition” is brought to you by NBCUniversal and Imagine Exhibitions. Biltmore marks the fourth stop on the exhibition’s U.S. tour, which has received wide critical acclaim. The exhibition made its U.S. debut in New York City in November 2017, where it was hailed by the New York Times as “a cleverly immersive experience mounted with the same exacting care as the show itself.” The exhibition has since completed successful runs in Boston and West Palm Beach.

“Not just any location can offer an immersive experience for ‘Dowton Abbey’ fans like we can here at Biltmore,” said Biltmore Director of Entertainment and Event Programming Travis Tatham. “The costumes, sets and historic artifacts all feel like they belong. The many parallels between ‘Downton Abbey’ and the stories at Biltmore make this experience truly multifaceted for our guests.”

Access to “Downton Abbey: The Exhibition” is included with regular daytime estate admission, Candlelight Christmas Evenings admission, or an overnight stay that includes daytime admission. Biltmore annual passholders need to purchase daytime admission to the exhibition.

If you go:

• Plan ahead. Purchase tickets in advance, especially during the Christmas season, which is always extra busy. When I visited last week, I arrived at the ticket office to be greeted by a long line of folks waiting to pick up tickets. An estate worker was stationed nearby to warn us all the day was already sold out (since about 11 a.m.), so if you didn’t have reserved tickets, you would have to return another day. They were still booking entry times for that night’s candlelight tour of the house, with the earliest entry time being 9 p.m. And if you’re going to eat on the estate, don’t forget to make reservations for that, too.

• Biltmore recently implemented a new estate-wide transportation and traffic system. You no longer may drive your car past the front of the house. Only two lots nearest the house are available to those who want to park and walk, and one is reserved for annual passholders. All other parking lots funnel visitors to a central transportation center, where you’ll go through security similar to at an airport and then board a bus or shuttle to go either to the house or other points on the estate. I’ve talked with other passholders who have had wonderful experiences with the new system, but also to others who have found it cumbersome. My advice: Be patient as Biltmore works out any kinks in this system, which I believe will ultimately make an estate visit more relaxing because once you park you can get a shuttle to any place you want to go.

• From the Tri-Cities take Interstate 26 East over the mountain into North Carolina. Travel into Asheville and as you approach the I-240 interchange stick to the left lane. At Exit 26, stay left toward Patton Avenue. Turn left on Patton Avenue. Go several blocks, then turn right on Ashland Avenue, which will a few blocks later merge into McDowell Street. And that leads straight to the entrance to Biltmore, which will be on your right. You will just have crossed a bridge and the Grand Bohemian Hotel is to the left.

For more information on the exhibition, go online and visit biltmore.com/downton/.