A GROUP of flamingos roller skate across a cocktail bar while a macaw performs The Nutcracker and a spectacled bear pilots an airship.
Yes, it’s fair to say a trip to Chester Zoo’s Christmas event, The Lanterns, is something out of the ordinary.
“Christmas at the zoo is always very special, but this year it’s going to have an extra sparkle as we’ve created a brand new trail through the zoo, which will be transformed into a world full of illumination and spellbinding adventure,” explains Charlotte Smith, head of discovery and learning at Chester Zoo, as the attraction prepared to open its doors to the public last weekend.
As excited families begin to stream through the zoo’s gates they enter a lantern-lit fairytale world with the illuminated journey through the zoo filled with theatrical performances, dancers and live music.
In keeping with the Christmas theme, the route is filled to the brim with sacks of toys and presents, and the thrill of venturing through the zoo at night, under lights, hits its peak when we happen upon a whole host of illuminated life-sized animal lanterns.
For the first time ever, this year’s event has been created by the zoo in partnership with Cheshire-based outdoor arts producers, Wild Rumpus, award-winning specialists in creating extraordinary worlds and telling incredible stories for all ages.
“We love taking family audiences outside and trying to get them, through the arts, to look at the world a bit differently,” says Sarah Bird, Wild Rumpus’ director.
“What we love about working with the zoo is that their learning and participation team are so passionate about the conservation messages.
“To try and help interpret that message for an audience is wonderful because it’s such a great and compelling story to tell.”
Lighting a route through the 125 acre zoo is no easy task and Sarah is reliant on a large team of experts.
“It’s a brilliant environment to work in,” she says.
“We’re quite a small team but we bring in outside contractors who work on lighting and costumes and of course there’s also the actors.
“It’s a real partnership with the zoo team who advise us on animal welfare and what is suitable in each area.”
On the creative side, Sarah also looks to the zoo’s team and their knowledge to provide inspiration for each of the animal’s characteristics.
“This year the zoo were really keen to introduce a story,” she says. “We thought that with it being a time when we are all thinking about what we want for Christmas maybe we could have a little think about what the animals need and want.”
Around 30 actors perform each night portraying everything from gibbons to antelope in conditions which, given the season, are far from tropical.
“Who in life wouldn’t want to be a roller skating flamingo?” laughs Sarah.
“The staff at the zoo are so passionate and enthusiastic and they want to inspire the children who come to visit.
“The one thing I’ve been overwhelmed by is how happy all their staff seem – you feel the heart of an organisation when you’re working there every day and we’ve been there for most of October and November – even when they are outdoors in hail storms they keep smiling.”
This year will also see the Lanterns experience extended online through a partnership with The Space, the digital commissioning agency supported by BBC and Arts Council England.
Working with The Space, a series of six short animated animal stories, narrated by TV and radio presenter Lauren Laverne, have started to be released on Wild Rumpus’ Facebook, twitter and Instagram channels. In addition, the company has produced a Facebook frame for audiences to share their own festive wishes.
Sarah added: “We are so excited to be working with the team at The Space on The Lanterns experience to extend access to this enchanting, theatrical event online so that audiences can get even more out of this unique experience and so that those who can’t attend can still be involved.”
l Tickets for the Lanterns event, which is running from November 24 - December 30, range from £12-17.50 for adults and £5 -£15 for children. Infants age two and under can enter for free. Book online at www.chesterzoo.org/lanterns