Tour and Taste a Sliver of the World at Wildwood’s Lanterns! Festival
Imagine a blooming spring wonderland at dusk. Still chilly enough to slip on a light jacket, but teasingly warm enough to make you want to stay outdoors. As the sun sets, darkness begins to fall — but the space is now aglow from candle-lit paths, floating lanterns, artistic light displays and glowing jewelry on children’s arms.
Leslie Golden calls it “a magical atmosphere.” And she would know — she’s been a key part of creating this majestic, inviting environment during the Lanterns! Festival at Wildwood Park for the Arts for 10 years. Golden, executive director at Wildwood, and Bevan Keating, artistic director for the organization, are ready for the 10th anniversary of Lanterns! from March 2-4 to be better than ever before, yet the same as it’s always been. In fact, not much about the event has changed since year one.
The core of the festival is, and always has been, the six to eight cultural vistas set up throughout the park. Each vista is based on a culture, location or era and each one offers something for the whole family.
“There will be food from that area, there will be culture from that area — as in arts or entertainment — and something for the children at each of the vistas, and something for the adults as well,” Keating said.
The 2018 festival’s vistas include New York, Italy, China, Morocco, Egypt, Cuba, Ireland and, last but not least, the moon. The New York vista will focus on the big musicals of the 1920s and 1930s and Ireland’s setup will give attendees a taste of St. Patrick’s Day with traditional dance and food and, of course, drinks for the adults. The China and moon vistas are especially important — they’re the only ones that repeat every single year.
“(The festival) is anchored in the Asian traditions of the Lunar New Year, so it’s always the first full moon of the lunar year, or as close as we can get to that,” Golden said. “In China, it’s a spring festival and this year, especially since it’s in early March, we’ll really get a taste of that.”
The Arkansas Chinese-American Association runs China’s vista each year and helps truly bring the culture to life. At the pavillion, children might learn a skill such as how to use chopsticks, say their name in Chinese or write calligraphy.
“China is always fabulous,” Golden said. “The native foods and the entertainment (are) great. It’s just such a warm vista … with very traditional decor.”
And China’s vista isn’t the only one where attendees can walk away with new knowledge.
“We do try and make it educational,” Golden said. “ As you move around through the park, there may be facts that the kids will really glom onto or something an adult has never seen and didn’t know about a particular region of the world.”
Golden and Keating both have kids of their own who have enjoyed the festival many times. Keating's for the past two years and Golden's for all nine.
“My kids’ favorite things are anything that glows in the dark, which is everything out here that night,” Keating said, laughing. “From the wristbands to the necklaces and every vista, the path to get there is lit up by candles. They like walking around the paths because it’s mysterious.”
Golden’s sons are older now, but she said when they were each around 5 or 6 years old they were both mesmerized by the martial arts demonstrations at China’s vista. Her 16-year-old son is now a volunteer at the event, something that other teens can participate in as well by contacting the park.
Another family-favorite feature is a chance to view the moon and stars through a telescope at a booth manned by the Central Arkansas Astronomical Society. Kids can also assemble lanterns at the lake, light a candle and send their glowing lamps onto the water.
“By the end of the night, there’s hundreds of these wishing lanterns floating around in the dark and it’s really captivating,” Keating said.
Lanterns! Festival Through the Years
Golden recalled a story from a past festival where wishing lanterns came into play.
“There was a first date here once and both the guy and the gal thought, ‘This is the one,’” Golden said, smiling as she recalled the sweet narrative. “They both wished, ‘Let this be the one’ and floated those lanterns out and then in a couple of years they got engaged here at a subsequent Lanterns! and then got married here.”
She said the number of families who call attending the festival a family tradition amazes her each year — but for Golden it’s easy to see why they come again and again.
“This event just stirs my heart every year.”
Lanterns! Festival at Wildwood Park for the Arts takes place March 2-4 at 20919 Denny Road in Little Rock. Admission is $10 for adults, $5 for children ages 5-12 and free for children under 5 when tickets are purchased by noon online the day of the festival. After noon, prices increase by $2. Event planners recommend bringing cash if purchasing tickets at the gate and for concessions; food and drink prices range from $1 to $8. For more information, visit WildwoodPark.org.