Last year, COVID put a damper on what should have been an amazing event at the Louisville Zoo with the first Wild Lights Asian lantern festival. This year with vaccines and dropping COVID infection numbers, the zoo’s Wild Lights exhibit is a must-see destination for families and the romantic set, but this is the last month to get there.
At the zoo, more than 70 different animatronic and interactive light displays are dispersed across the park’s 1.4 mile walking path. A few animals are out and about, but most of the animals are off display by the time the lanterns start to glow at dusk.
Like many, my family has spent the last year hunkered down to protect our health and the health of others close to us, but armed with fully vaccinated immune systems and low infection rates community-wide, we thought this was an event we could safely navigate with our son.
Since it was a school night, we didn’t want to take the kid too late but we didn’t want to miss the chance to see the lanterns glowing at night. We split the difference and went for the 8:15 slot. Shortly after our adventure began, the sun started to disappear, and the magic really turned on.
And this show, and the night, was magic.
We’re a family of three so the price of tickets at $20 bucks a pop was a little bit “ouch,” but the Family Four Pack, which gives you an extra ticket for the same price, made it a bit more palatable. The price for the evening also includes a $6 parking fee so don’t be surprised there. With the extra ticket, we were able to invite my also fully-vaccinated mother along.
We chose a Wednesday night hoping to find less of a crowd.
When we got there, the parking lot was sensibly full but nothing like a normal zoo day. It was about what we’d expected and what we’d hoped for.
Greeting us as we walked from the parking lot to the ticket counter was a row of lighted giraffes… then immediately through the gates a giant frog winking at us. I was already as excited (maybe more) as my 8-year-old son. Word of advice, give yourself to the magic and innocence of looking at pretty lights. The first displays we saw netted many oohs and ahhs from our little group, and, basically, that continued for the entire night.
At our house, lasers and LEDs are standard fare. We are big fans of the Snoezelen room concept as a means of therapeutic relaxation. Snoezelen rooms are designed for individuals with multi-sensory needs, brain injury, dementia and autism but are absolutely equally equipped to handle the needs of the high generalized anxiety folks like myself. I would not have survived this last year without the solace of my LED environments.
The Wild Lights exhibit, for us, was much like a giant Snoezelen playground. There were places that were more stimulating than others — so folks with epilepsy or other sensory sensitivities be warned. The zoo actually does a good job of that, too.
Walking through the first flower tunnel with the moving anime-esque figurines pulled at my love for all things floral and spring, but also it was the perfect moment to truly surrender any last shred of pompous adulthood I was going to display this evening. It was a little bit “Alice in Wonderland,” and more than a bit Studio Ghibli — very much like walking into a frame of “Spirited Away.”
From there, are running LED peacocks, families of ostrich, gorillas, loads of hidden lighted insects and other creatures to pique your interest. One of the most impressive animatronic creations was the Viking lava rock creature across from the bongos (don’t miss the chance to see the sweet baby bongo). This massive guy takes a bit to reach his full height and power, but be patient and take the time to watch him. My son was thoroughly impressed.
Throughout the evening there are moments for child-like wonder and those that are pure fantasy or romance. The large pink feathers that you pass after moving by the gorilla enclosure is a great moment and visual element for taking photos with your loved ones. Hint: you’ll leave the park with hundreds of amazing photos of your family and displays, and many photos of the ground or blurry rocks because you got more than caught up in the wonder then forgot to turn your camera off.
Fans of K-dramas, take note… there are definitely a few moments in the Wild Lights exhibit where the fanatic in you will be sparked and reminded that while many of these were created by Chinese artisans, the K-drama touch definitely dropped a little influence in the light show offerings. When you get there, you’ll know. Do a dance, take silly photos, grab a kiss from your “Oppa” or “Jagiya.” Even my husband who doesn’t obsess over Korean drama like I do, recognized this moment and started giggling.
Here’s where I stop; I won’t tell you everything because I do want you to go and not to miss this wonderful event. If you get a chance, be sure to stop by the small booth of Chinese goods near the snowy owl enclosure. There are items in several price points. We loved the lanterns and the wire sculptures, which piqued the interest of my wire-obsessed child.
Wild Lights opens at 6:30 every night and the last admittance is at 10:30, but you don’t have to leave the park until midnight. So, go spend all the time you want relishing this truly imaginative and unforgettable experience.