By Becky Chan
Northwest Asian Weekly
It’s a zoo after all. Of course, there’ll be lions, and tigers, and bears. There’ll also be orcas, dolphins, and an octopus. But when the Woodland Park Zoo opens its gates for a new nighttime event, WildLanterns, its permanent residents won’t be available for visits.
Instead, you’ll be treated to their handcrafted lantern-lookalikes, illuminating and delighting you along the dark, winding paths of the zoo. No yellow brick road needed.
Gigi Allianic, Senior Public Relations & Communications Manager, told Northwest Asian Weekly, “We had the WildLights for eight years already, so we wanted to do something new.”
WildLights was an 800,000 LED light display recreating wild scenes at the zoo.
WildLanterns came to fruition a year ago. The zoo connected with China-based Sichuan Tianyu Communication Company, which specializes in lantern festivals all over the world. Tianyu met with the zoo staff over the summer and came up with 60 nature-scape filled with over 300 lanterns. This being the Pacific Northwest, sea creatures are featured prominently.
Events Program Manager Leilani Balais said, “We believe we picked the best lanterns that reflect the zoo’s mission towards wildlife conservation, while creating a unique, fun, and memorable experience for all ages.”
It’s a good thing that some Tianyu staff were already in the U.S. installing lantern festivals in other cities. Due to the COVID pandemic, Tianyu could not bring anyone new from China to work on the project at the Seattle zoo. Those in the U.S. have to extend their stay to help install other festivals.
Balais said, “The company had to create a new team based off of current staff already working in the states.”
The lanterns arrived in Seattle in 24 containers in three shipments beginning in early September. Installation began on Oct. 8 and the staff have been working non-stop since.
You sense the intricacy and artistry of WildLanterns immediately at the zoo’s west entrance on Phinney Avenue. A pair of 10-foot-tall swans, as if they were plucked out of the top of a wedding cake, sat facing each other longingly, surrounded by multiple floating pink lotus blossoms.
Inside the zoo, you’re greeted by a proud peacock showing off its colors, first flashing magenta, then blue, then half magenta, then half blue. It’s mesmerizing.
Along the one-way path, you’ll encounter the gorillas amongst the bright green fronds. They may stare at you frozen in time, allowing you to stare back.
The chomping jaws of a 30-foot alligator might startle you. Yes, some of these wild lanterns have moving parts. When the alligator opens its jaws, it allows you to inspect its cavity. Or you might stand back and admire the detailed craftsmanship of the entire scene.
A giant octopus glows brilliantly red under the dark canopy of mixed conifers and deciduous trees. It’s comfortable in its garden. The enormous octopus’s eyes signal intelligence and friendship. No petting allowed.
If you grow restless admiring the lanterns, there are interactive areas. A 21-key keyboard much like the one in the 1988 movie “Big” lets you jump on the keys and play a tune like Tom Hanks did, except this one changes colors while you play.
There is also a mushroom the size of a small Chinatown noodle shop that spews out bubbles from its gills. Upon bursting the bubbles puff out tiny clouds, acting like mushroom spores.
It must be a magic mushroom because nearby you’ll find yourself in a cubical of psychedelic colors. Its display of dizzying and fast-changing colors will take you to another world.
Because of COVID, the zoo is limiting each night’s capacity. The zoo complies with all Washington state and King County health guidelines. Face coverings are required for guests ages 5 and up. There’ll be sanitation stations throughout the zoo. Timed entry tickets must be purchased in advance online at zoo.org/WildLanterns.
The hours for the WildLanterns are 4–8:30 p.m., with the last entry at 7 p.m. The festival runs now through Jan. 17, Tuesday to Sunday. The Woodland Park Zoo is located at 5500 Phinney Avenue North, enter via the west entrance on Phinney Avenue.
Becky can be reached at email@example.com.