Business Profile: Southwick’s Zoo delights with Festival of Illumination, Winter Wonderland

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    The animals have been tucked away for the winter season, but Southwick’s Zoo is not entering hibernation. With visitors enjoying the inaugural Festival of Illumination and, starting Nov. 26, the Winter Wonderland, the zoo is bustling with activity.

    “People are starving for entertainment, especially now with everything we’ve been through,” says Cindy Lavoie, CFO of Southwick’s Zoo.

    Southwick’s Zoo partnered with Zigong Lantern Group this year to present the Festival of Illumination, the largest lantern festival in New England. As night falls, the 3D displays come to life in the figures of wild animals and global landscapes, some as large as 60 feet tall and 300 feet long.

    The festival theme is “World of Lights,” and the creators have designed lanterns to represent all seven continents. “We want to teach people about taking care of our earth and about conservation efforts,” says Lavoie. “We also want to impart knowledge to the general public about all the different continents and their animals.”

    In addition to wildlife education, Lavoie notes that visitors enjoy a cultural and artistic experience as they admire the lanterns’ Chinese craftsmanship. Cultural Chinese lantern festivals began centuries ago during the Han Dynasty, according to Zigong Lantern Group, which brought 22 people from China to help manufacture the pieces at the zoo. The lanterns, made of steel and silk, are meticulously hand-painted and illuminated with LED bulbs.

    The festival also features an Asian marketplace where guests can shop, eat and enjoy live entertainment. Three to four acrobatic performances are held each night — a “must-see show,” according to Lavoie.

    Starting Nov. 26, the Festival of Illumination becomes a drive-through event and combines with the zoo’s annual Winter Wonderland attraction. Now in its fifth year, Lavoie says the Winter Wonderland gets “bigger and better” each time. “When we do something here, we go all in to make it the best that it can be,” she says.

    This year, visitors will enjoy a holiday-themed dog show featuring rescue dogs, and kids will have a chance to interact with costumed characters and Santa himself. There will be hot chocolate, hot toddies and firepits to mingle around — plus Galliford’s Restaurant and the zoo’s gift shop will be open. New holiday-themed lantern elements also will be added to the Festival of Illumination displays.

    Lavoie says the zoo has had “a wonderful year” thanks to its patrons and it is very grateful for the support of the community. As one of the few places that was able to remain open during much of the pandemic, the continued traffic from visitors has helped the zoo expand its offerings and look forward to new projects.

    The traditional zoo experience will reopen in April 2022 along with the unveiling of a new playground.

    The Festival of Illumination will be open as a walk-through attraction until Nov. 25, Wednesday through Sunday evenings. The Winter Wonderland and Festival of Illumination will open as a drive-through from Nov. 26 to Jan. 2. For more information or to buy tickets, visit southwickszoo.com.

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