Bunny Schaaf | Staff Writer
How often are you greeted at the zoo by a set of large, glowing gargoyles?
The Pittsburgh Zoo has been dazzling visitors at the Asian Lantern Festival since Fall of 2021, full of pathways lined with bright animals, cultural symbolism and avant-garde creations contributed by a selection of donors.
As guests walk through the zoo, they are accompanied by not just tigers, bears and frogs — usual suspects given the setting — but also dragons, oversized dragonflies and even a Monkey King who ascends from an ornamental vessel.
More outlandish fixtures are also equipped with plaques that detail their cultural significance and history.
Despite the educational components, Wayland, a 28-year-old first-time visitor to the event, still found it to be engaging and relaxed.
“It’s definitely more of a fun experience,” he said.
According to R.J. Kozura, an employee at the Pittsburgh Zoo, the Asian Lantern Festival takes about a month and a half to set up, but draws in far more visitors than usual.
Even late at night, families, couples and groups flood the zoo’s illuminated pathways and watch shows such as Kung Fu demonstrations and Guqin performances.
Alongside these performances are vendors of different backgrounds who offer transcriptions of your ‘Chinese name,’ lanterns to carry around the festival, handmade wire sculptures, Pan Chang knots, face paint and caricatures.
If you’re lucky, you may also be able to catch a traditional Geisha or a Monkey-King-inspired samurai on stilts ready for a photo opportunity.
Despite the general branding of the Asian Lantern Festival, it heavily emphasizes Chinese culture this year.
From larger-than-life representations of Chinese zodiacs — which do provide the years they’re associated with, should you want to identify your own — to the famed Terracotta Warriors, there is a heavy amount of Chinese and Qin Dynasty influence and plenty of educational resources to accompany Asian-inspired cuisine, sake and intricate lanterns.
Tickets range from $17 to $26 for adults, depending on the time of night and day of the week. They have been on sale since Aug. 11, and will continue to be valid until Oct. 29, running on select nights Thursday through Sunday.
Most nights follow a “walk thru” format, but the zoo also offers “drive thru” nights which start at $70 per vehicle and make the event more accessible to larger groups and individuals with mobility challenges.
Sacha, a 24-year-old visitor, first heard of the festival on Facebook and has been going ever since.
“It’s not the same every year,” she said. “They do something different every time, and I really like it. The pandas are my favorite part. Last year they had huge cherry blossoms. This year, it’s all bamboo.”
The event is extensive and spectacular, allowing you to walk through various groups of creatures.
There are underwater scenes with a moving whale and tunnels of bright fish and starkly different scenes of great migrations of land animals and huge peacocks, all done in the same jovial lantern style.
In addition to lanterns, there are also interactive exhibits, including a large, glowing elephant that changes color in response to a pad that guests step on, donated game consoles of “slap slap,” glowing swings and a tree made of glowing cord that visitors can walk through.
The Pittsburgh Zoo’s Asian Lantern Festival is worth donating an evening to, for a lighthearted night of education and, most importantly, conservation — the zoo’s main mission and priority for hosting the festival.
The festival is appropriate for all ages and demographics, complete with plenty of photo opportunities and surprise animal sightings.
There are only a few weeks left of the festival’s third season, and time slots are limited. Indoor facilities, such as the aquarium, will not be open, but visitors are permitted to walk through the zoo’s outdoor exhibits.