As we enter the Calgary Zoo at dusk, we’re first greeted by a friendly group of penguins. After admiring these dapper critters, we walk on a little further and find ourselves beneath a stunning phoenix – an important symbol of strength, resilience, good fortune, opportunity and luck in Asian cultures. What’s a mythical creature doing at the zoo, you ask?? Well, neither the penguins nor the phoenix are alive (though we do love watching the zoo’s five resident species of penguins during a daytime visit). They are, rather, the first glimpses in our sparkling journey through ILLUMINASIA, Western Canada’s premiere lantern and garden festival. It’s the start of a beautiful evening.
Prior to visiting, I had assumed this was a traveling show, but a friendly volunteer gave us the real scoop. ILLUMINASIA is, in fact, a brand new festival experience dreamed up by the Calgary Zoo and supported by a number of proud sponsors. The lanterns were made specifically for the festival by talented Chinese artisans, featuring animals that inhabit this beloved attraction. In addition to showcasing the animals that live at the zoo, ILLUMINASIA also endeavours to highlight three Asian countries/cultures. The first two weeks featured a Chinese theme, the second two weeks (including our visit) are about Japan, and the third fortnight will put the spotlight on India. The final four nights of the festival (October 29 – November 1) will bring all three cultures together for a multi cultural extravaganza.
I can’t possibly include photos of all we saw, but here are a few of our favourite creatures, lantern-style… the larger animals are verging on life-sized, while the smallest have been supersized to show their beauty. Some of them are even animatronic. In other words… they move!
During the [8 pm] evening show on the TD Stage, we learned even more about the festival. It turns out that the lanterns were handmade here in Calgary by artisans brought in from Sichuan, China specifically to apply their talents to the project. There are 366 lanterns in total, over 180 of which depict animals that live at the Calgary Zoo (plus a few creatures that are culturally significant in Asia, like the phoenix). The lanterns are composed of hand-shaped metal frames covered by rayon silk (something like 30,000 lbs of rayon were used in their making!).
In addition to a traditional saké cask opening ceremony, the show we took in featured Taiko drumming, a top-notch (and hilarious) magician and a Japanese dancer/contortionist who taught us all the Thriller dance and had the crowd doing it all together at the end of his performance. The whole thing was a lot of fun and we were very lucky (phoenix influence??) to be able to watch it in our t-shirts – it’s not too often you get evening temperatures like that during October in Calgary!
While most of the lanterns are placed outside, the ENMAX Conservatory is open during the festival and home to many butterflies (lanterns plus the usual inhabitants) and dragonflies. On the night we visited, there were also some lovely ladies demonstrating traditional Japanese apparel. We didn’t make it into the BBQ Tent, but apparently there were kid friendly activities going on in there. The zoo was bustling without feeling uncomfortably crowded and the atmosphere was very special.
I highly recommend you visit ILLUMINASIA before it goes into storage November 2nd (ILLUMINASIA runs September 8 – October 16 in 2016). Our kids were as captivated by the lanterns as we were, and our whole family is looking forward to another visit next year, when the lanterns return!
Our thanks to the Calgary Zoo for supplying us with tickets to ILLUMINASIA; the opinions expressed here are my own.
ILLUMINASIA Event Details:
When: September 17 – November 1, 2015
Time: Thursday – Saturday: 7 – 10* pm; Sunday: 6 – 9* pm
Where: Calgary Zoo
Address: 1300 Zoo Road NE, Calgary AB
*gates close 30 minutes before closing time