Anakeesta Sparkles 6 Years After Gatlinburg Fires

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Children take in the wonder of Astra Lumina's Stellar Visions zone in the Anakeesta theme park. Dana Armstrong photos.
Children take in the wonder of Astra Lumina’s Stellar Visions zone in the Anakeesta theme park. Dana Armstrong photos.

Astra Lumina Shines New Light Over Gatlinburg, Tennessee

The sun sets over the Smokies from Anakeesta's Smokehouse restaurant.
The sun sets over the Smokies from Anakeesta’s Smokehouse restaurant.

By Dana Armstrong

After the sun set in an orangey golden blaze behind the Great Smoky Mountains, the Anakeesta theme park in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, and its newest attraction, Astra Lumina, came alive.

My family and I walked past the fire pits, shops, and restaurants in Firefly Village that provided cozy respites from the cool mountain air.

Just past the entryway to Astra Lumina, lamps cut out with constellations cast stars upon the sidewalks.

It all foreshadowed the celestial experience ahead.

Reaching the Stars

Cosmic Choir zone of the new Astra Lumina night walk.
Cosmic Choir zone of the new Astra Lumina night walk.

Astra Lumina is a magical nighttime walk in the woods. The winding path guides you through different zones with unique light and sound displays and plenty of areas to sit and take in the surroundings.

In the Cosmic Choir zone, orbs of light above your head flash in time to otherworldly-sounding harmonies and the chirps of crickets hidden within the trees.

In the incredibly immersive Stardust Rays zone, fog and multi-colored, dancing light rays make you feel as if you’re in another dimension.

The circular screen in the Stellar Visions zone recreates a bit of the cosmos right before your eyes.

Moment Factory, a company that has built 14 other Lumina Enchanted Night Walks in Canada, Japan, Singapore, and France, created Astra Lumina. Their goal is to enhance natural areas through artful light displays.

The setting of the Smoky Mountains is perfect for its US debut.

Rebuilding from the Gatlinburg Fires

It’s almost hard to believe that six years ago this peaceful stretch of woods wasn’t illuminated by starlight, but by fire.

A plaque in Anakeesta's Memorial Walk shows the impacts of the 2016 Gatlinburg fire.
A plaque in Anakeesta’s Memorial Walk shows the impacts of the 2016 Gatlinburg fire.

This marks just over six years since the great 2016 Gatlinburg fire.

From November 28 to December 13, fires ripped through over 17,000 acres of land in Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the surrounding cities of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge.

At the time, owners Bob and Karen Bentz were in the beginning stages of planning Anakeesta.

Much of the mountaintop lot they purchased for the park burned in the fires. Even today, beyond the beautifully landscaped areas of the park’s AnaVista Gardens, you can still see some of the greyed skeletons of tree trunks.

This history of the fire, including select stories of key people impacted and involved in the recovery efforts, is displayed on signs along the park’s Memorial Walk.

One of those people highlighted is Sevier County’s own Dolly Parton, who helped raise over 9 million dollars in emergency relief funding for families who lost their homes in the fire.

Anakeesta's Treetop Skywalk is a series of interconnected platforms and hanging bridges in the trees.
Anakeesta’s Treetop Skywalk is a series of interconnected platforms and hanging bridges in the trees.

Anakeesta’s Impact

According to Michele Canney, Vice President of Marketing and Sales at Anakeesta, Astra Lumina celebrates the side of the mountain unscathed by the blaze due to its shade and higher moisture levels.

With their night walk, visitors can have a greater appreciation for the healthy trees and vegetation intermingled with the light displays.

At the opening night of Astra Lumina, Gatlinburg’s mayor, Mike Werner, described the new attraction as “intended to integrate with the outdoors.”

Mayor Werner also noted how vital Anakeesta has been for creating new jobs and attracting new visitors to Gatlinburg. He hopes this first-of-its-kind night walk experience in the US will further the appeal of the Smoky Mountains region.

 

Guests can choose to ride up to the mountaintop Anakeesta theme park on their Chondola.
Guests can choose to ride up to the mountaintop Anakeesta theme park on their Chondola.

There’s Magic in the Mountains

The best stop on the main city stretch of Gatlinburg is the one that whisks you away into the mountains: the Anakeesta theme park.

Do note this would still be considered a “touristy” attraction, but one that at least takes you away from the marquis, arcades, and dinner shows down below.

Account for a couple of hours to wait in line for tickets and take your chosen mode of transportation—a Chondola open-air ski lift, enclosed cabin, or Ridge Rambler truck to the top.

Or, to shorten your wait, purchase your tickets online in advance. That way, you can proceed directly to the Chondola or Ridge Rambler queue.

Additionally, try to wait until after 3 pm to visit the park. Attendance usually slows down then, and it’ll allow you to experience the full spectrum of views of the park from daylight to sunset to nighttime.

Make sure to opt for the Astra Lumina + Admission ticket package to get the most out of your evening.

While Anakeesta is meant for fun, it prioritizes relaxation and the beauty of its natural surroundings.

The theme park occupies a 70-acre wooded lot on a mountaintop with panoramic views of the Great Smoky Mountains. AnaVista Tower is one of the best places to take this in.

Theme Park Within Nature

During my visit, I saw families taking pictures in the landscaped Vista Gardens and couples lounging in Adirondack chairs with amber-colored beers.

Adventure-seekers challenged friends to the zipline course and Mountain Coaster while the park’s littlest guests enjoyed the treehouses and ropes challenges.

There are ample family photo opportunities located throughout Anakeesta.
There are ample family photo opportunities located throughout the park.

My family and I loved the Treetop Skywalk—a series of interconnected platforms and hanging bridges in the trees. Many of the platforms included plaques with facts about the region’s wildlife.

More is Coming!

You can find stunning 360-degree views of the Smoky Mountains from Anakeesta's AnaVista tower.
You can find stunning 360-degree views of the Smoky Mountains from Anakeesta’s AnaVista tower.

The Astra Lumina night walk is just the first phase of Anakeesta’s long-term expansion project.

It is anticipated that Anakeesta will open a new, stone European-style village complete with a picturesque waterfall and a whimsical play zone with human-sized birdhouses in Spring 2023.

To pay further homage to the Smoky Mountain region, they’ll launch a new mountain rollercoaster, the Hellbender, named after a local salamander species.

Additionally, they plan to create a cave system surrounded by walking trails, meant to echo the natural features one can find in the nearby Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Anakeesta Blazes Ahead

Six years since the fires, Gatlinburg has bounced back better than ever, thanks in part to the creation and innovation of the Anakeesta theme park. For a family fun adventure in Gatlinburg that celebrates the outdoors, Anakeesta is the place to go!

This trip was sponsored by Anakeesta, but all opinions are the author’s own.