There is nothing like New York City at Christmas! Rockefeller Center, Radio City, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the Plaza – you name it and we’ve got it. This year, the first ever NYC Winter Lantern Festival—produced by New York Events & Entertainment (NEWYORKEE) and Haitian Culture— arrived in my home borough of Staten Island. Located at the Snug Harbor Cultural Center & Botanical Garden (a hop, skip and a jump from my house), the event features seven acres lit up by 40 LED installations that stretch up to 30 feet tall. The LED lanterns are accompanied by periodic live performances of traditional Chinese dances and art. EVERYONE is talking about it! But is it really that accessible, or enjoyable, if you are a visually impaired New Yorker?
Here are 9 things visually impaired New Yorkers need to know before attending the NYC Winter Lantern Festival @ Snug Harbor Cultural Center & Botanical Garden:
- Not Cheap, but Comparable: Tickets for the show range from $15 for a child (3-12) to $23 for an adult. Seniors (65 and over) and veterans also pay $15 for their tickets. Groupon does offer some small discounts, but their website is not particularly accessible with a screen reader to access these promotions. With the help of my husband, I was able to purchase a 4-ticket package for $74.00. I literally saved $2.00 (big whoop), but I had my tickets pre-printed to save time. Compared to other holiday events around New York City, this event is absolutely priced accordingly.
- Security is Well Educated: I knew large crowds would mean difficult navigation for me with a cane. Therefore, I chose to take my guide dog, Frances, with me during the festivities. Security approached us at the ticket line and escorted us directly to the check in booth and through the main gate. They were respectful, patient, and used the correct terminology when talking about my guide dog. We encountered several security guards throughout the festival and each one asked if my family needed any assistance. I could also hear the guards alerting each other on their radios that there was a “service animal” on the property each time we made contact with them. Kudos to the Security team of the NYC Winter Lantern Festival for being such an awesome and knowledgeable staff.
- Selfies will Slow You Down: Once you pass the gates of the ticket counter, you are placed on a cardboard block path that leads you around to each installation. You will quite literally feel like a herd of cattle moving through Snug Harbor with frequent periods of sudden stops because someone has decided to take a selfie. I personally slammed into the backs of multiple patrons while moving through the exhibit. It would have been helpful if the event organizers had put up signage for designated selfie areas slightly off the beaten path to prevent the pedestrian gridlock. Be prepared to quite literally bump into a few of your fellow New Yorkers as you mosey amongst an army of selfie-seeking lantern lovers.
- No Maps, Few Signs & Poor Website Design: One of the biggest problems I encountered as a blind woman attending this event was I had no idea what I was looking at half the time. There were no maps available and no signage prepared in an accessible format such as large print or braille. My husband, children, and those lovely security people I mentioned earlier helped describe what I was seeing as we walked through Snug Harbor. Admittedly, there were, however, some installations that I could figure out for myself just because of their sheer size… like the amazingly awesome open-mouthed shark. To make matters worse, the NYC Winter Lantern Festival website has several broken links and lacks important accessibility features like image descriptions or alt. text. The “Frequently Asked Question” section also does not address the needs of disabled guests in any capacity.
- Prepare for Brightness: Now sighted people will read this and say, “Duh, it’s a lantern festival, it’s supposed to be bright.” Yeah, I know. I’m telling you this because if you have limited vision or are particularly light-sensitive, then you absolutely need to be prepared. My family could legitimately see these lights shining from 6 blocks away. IT’S THAT BRIGHT! I wore my sunglasses then entire time I was at the festival. Thankfully, I had the foresight to also pack a pair of glacier sunglasses that can be used in high glare situations or in snow. I switched back and forth between the two during our holiday adventure. I would highly recommend good eye coverage and a brimmed hat to help alleviate any eye pain or tearing. Come prepared because what you will see is absolutely breathtaking.
- The Venue is Wheelchair Accessible: If you happen to be blind and a wheelchair user, you will be able to navigate this outdoor venue. There is no doubt that the width of the makeshift path can accommodate any wheelchair. However, the crowds will make it difficult to navigate. Dress warmly and pack your patience. You’re going to need it.
- Limited Food & Gift Options: When our family attended this past weekend, there were only 2 food trucks available: one selling lobster and the other with empanadas. Hot chocolate was being sold at one truck for $5 per cup and $4 at its competitor. My children were looking for something more like a box of popcorn or a pretzel. We could find nothing “kid-friendly” to feed them. We were also hoping to purchase the girls NYC Winter Lantern Festival t-shirts, but quickly learned we were out of luck. Online options are also not available (refer to #4 for a suitable explanation). Food and gift items were placed slightly away from the lantern area, also making it too dark to use apps like “Seeing AI” or my “OrCam” device to help read information that may have been posted.
- Go Reflective: If you have anything reflective, wear it. My guide dog wore a blinking collar and a reflective leash. This was extremely beneficial in allowing my children to “see me” out of the crowds of people – and there were hundreds – that attended. In addition, as you leave Snug Harbor, venturing away from the lights and back to your car, it does become much darker. Any reflective material will help your group stay together, especially if they have limited vision.
- Entertainment Is Amazing: My husband was able to get my children close to the stage area for them to watch a traditional Chinese Face Changing Dance. They were in absolute awe. While I could not physically see anything happening on stage, I found the music very beautiful and enjoyable. Ask a security guard what time the live performances are taking place and listen for announcements made over the loud speaker. The closer you can get to the stage, the better chance you will have of experiencing the cultural entertainment that is truly amazing.
Overall, there were many positive aspects to attending the NYC Winter Lantern Festival as a visually impaired patron. As a Staten Islander, the convenience of the proximity for this event was just too good to pass up for our family. For blind or disabled families considering attending from the outer boroughs, I would caution you to come early, be prepared to wait, eat beforehand, or plan to grab something after. If you can arrange for a driver or choose to carpool, all street and public parking are free of charge.
Taking the Staten Island Ferry? There is a free shuttle service available that runs from the St. George Ferry Station (Near Exit E), New York Wheel Garage (Near Exit), and the Snug Harbor Cultural Center and Botanical Garden (Entrance W).
I’m very proud of where I live and the community where I am raising my family. However, every NYC venue and cultural institution must consider the needs of the disabled community when planning events such as these. While I was so impressed by Snug Harbor’s competent and respectful security staff, I was highly disappointed by their lack of accessible signage and website flaws.
The New York City Lantern Festival runs from now until January 6th, 2019 at Snug Harbor Cultural Center & Botanical Garden located at 1000 Richmond Terrace, Staten Island, NY 10301. This excludes Mondays and Tuesdays. The times of the festival are only Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays from 5:00 PM – 10:00 PM. Fridays and Saturdays offer two ticket times 5:00 PM – 8:00 PM or 8:00 PM – 11:00 PM.
If you’re a visually impaired New Yorker who is planning on hitting this festival, drop me a line at [email protected] and tell me about your experience. Blind Motherhood wishes all of their followers many happy and “accessible” holiday memories across our beautiful city.