With flashing colors and blinding lights, John Ball Zoo’s lantern festival is a blazing spectacle


When I first heard that the zoo I grew up attending was hosting a lantern festival with a multitude of expertly crafted creations, my expectations were high; they were met the moment I walked through the arch of bright flashing colors.

John Ball Zoo, located off Highway 196 going west out of Grand Rapids, is hosting a lantern festival from April 19 to June 11 that is a spectacular adventure among fantastic animal-shaped and plant-themed lanterns. 

The festival is located within the zoo, and $22 tickets are sold from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. The spectacle is partnered with Tianyu Arts and Culture as well as Family Fare. All proceeds are given to wildlife conservation throughout the state.

My mother and I arrived at 9 p.m. and spent an hour walking through the mile-long boardwalk lined with impeccable representations of glowing Asian culture. 

Some of the lantern designs we saw were cheetahs, deer, bears, snowy owls, vultures, meerkats, and more. Others we walked through had lotuses and blooming orange blossoms hanging from the ceiling, creating a tunnel of light. A few lanterns were more muted and created a soft blanket of luminosity, while others struck through the dark night sky with neon pink and green. 

One spot had a pair of rainbow-striped wings that people can take pictures standing in front of and pretend to possess large angel wings. There was a tunnel with wall-to-wall LED images strobing over the surface; however, we decided to skip the headache it would induce. 

The pinnacle of both of our highlights was the tunnel of hanging wisteria illuminated with sparks of colored luster dripping from the top.

An enormous purple crab set just outside the penguin house levitated with moving claws and legs, blowing bubbles that popped into a smooth smoke. This place was definitely a lot of children’s favorite spot.

My favorite attraction consisted of a dragon perched up high on a hill, gazing out over the park. Its tendrils and scales were intricate weavings of silk texture, and the ombre of the red to orange to purple was picture-perfect.

The pinnacle of both of our highlights was the tunnel of hanging wisteria illuminated by sparks of colored luster dripping from the top. It was almost hypnotic; we became mesmerized by the light waving through the flowers like a lazy ocean current. 

Dotted around the exhibits were softly flapping dragonflies and radiant butterflies lining the trees. The colors transitioned from deep ocean blue to pale firefly yellow. 

Overall, the experience was magnificent, and the passion behind the project is as obvious as a blazing red tulip in the dark of night. 

The walk itself does have inclines and declines, but all of the boardwalks are wheelchair and disabled-friendly. It can be done in about an hour moving with the flow of people; however, if you so wish, you can wait a few minutes as the main group of people passes for an opportunity to take pictures without anyone in the frame.

I purchased this for about $40. Each one was unique.

Some attractions do have a line, so it is best to be quick and prepared so the others around can enjoy the lanterns as well. I highly recommend doing this around sunset. This will allow for optimal effect as the light will make it seem much longer than it actually is. The dark forest around will act as a tunnel, reflecting the radiance back to the ground. 

Last but not least, there is a small tent across from the purple crab selling plenty of small hanging lanterns with fairy lights inside them. I purchased a well-crafted dragon made completely of shining gold and purple metal. The selection also has trinkets, jewelry, and other nicknacks to take a gander at. 

The lantern festival runs Wednesday through Sunday and entry ends at 10:00 p.m. This is a worthwhile experience that you do not want to miss. It will create lasting memories of glowing fish and shining tigers that will be shared for a lifetime.