The Astra Lumina Experience in Tennessee
The lumina walk in Gatlinburg’s Anakeesta tourist park is probably the closest you’ll get to touching stars on earth.
Traveling into Gatlinburg, TN isn’t particularly easy. The closest airport is Knoxville, and then it’s an hour or so drive into the tourist town at the base of the Smoky Mountains. But with an end goal of an Astra Lumina night walk, it seemed worth it. It turns out, even the scenery was worth it too.
There is a scenic route from the airport to Gatlinburg. One where you travel through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I don’t know what I expected traveling south, but November, fall foliage shockingly isn’t unique to the northern, colder part of the country. The reds, oranges, and yellows of the trees lining our route were breathtaking. Tennessee does get pretty chilly at night, which was surprising coming from a Chicagoan. And we were even part of a bear standstill as a mama bear and two cubs foraged oh-so-close to the two-lane road we were on. Now, that was a novel experience for a city girl like myself.
When you break through the national park path, you finally come across Gatlinburg. Again, Northern girl here. I haven’t been to Tennessee before and this tiny town was not what I expected. If you’ve ever been to Wisconsin Dells—a classic vacation spot for Chicago families—Gatlinburg’s strip might remind you of the Dells. However, there are some significant differences. For one, there is no body of water; instead of rivers lining the strip of salon-style bars, restaurants galore, and souvenir shops every few storefronts, Gatlinburg has mountains and ski lifts leading off into the distance. And Gatlinburg gave off more of a quaint, small-town-in-the-tourism-business vibe, whereas the Dells feels very suffocating and cheap at times.
The town isn’t super walkable once you get to a certain point (aka where our hotel was located), but the strip is definitely where you and your walking shoes will spend the most time. That is, unless you head up to Anakeesta where our trip culminated at. It’s marketed as a “theme park” of sorts, or that was the description given to us by several locals. However, it’s actually just a large tourist area at the top of a mountain. You can take the ski lift up to the summit or you can take a huge, rumbling tourist truck while leaving your car in the parking lot. But regardless, it’s a long way up to the top.
Once there, Anakeesta does give off “Disney” vibes with its funnel cake, hot asphalt smells, and well-crafted family-friendly decorations. But instead of “It’s a small world” rides, all of the attractions involve nature and the natural beauty around you. There’s only one “ride,” which is their mountain coaster. Anakeesta is meant to make you experience the mountain and dive into the authentic beauty around you that you might have missed while passing through the Smokies in a car. Bryce Bentz, President of Anakeesta, shared with me that only 10% of people actually step out of their vehicle when visiting the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Anakeesta’s core mission, or part of it, was to entice the visitors to go up into the mountains and give them several different skywalks or vista towers to choose from to better see the gorgeous vistas and nature around them. But after the wonderment that is Astra Lumina, the rest of the strip and even Anakeesta just don’t hold a flame to the experience we had in store.
Patricia Ruel described it best to me when she called Anakeesta “not tacky.” She is the Creative Director for Moment Factory, a multimedia entertainment studio that has done projects as big as Billie Eilish’s Happier Than Ever World Tour or lighting up the facade of Notre Dame cathedral in Paris. They also created Astra Lumina, a luminescent walk built in and for Anakeesta, the first of its kind in America. And the theme park’s ambiance and lack of tackiness convinced Ruel and the rest of her team that Anakeesta was the perfect place to put their
“Anakeesta came first and we just found this concept that meshed so well with who we are,” Bentz told me about why they campaigned to get Astra Lumina added to Anakeesta. “It’s getting people outside and it’s that nighttime spin whereas Anakeesta… is the great vistas, it’s the great views. And Astra Lumina, these Lumina night walks take that theme and make it a nighttime experience. It mixes together lighting and sound to create a story outdoors.”
Moment Factory has created several other nighttime luminescent walks like this one, with several in Canada, Asia, and France. Ruel says that the concept started nine years ago when Quebec wanted something to do at night, and it was a great project for the entertainment experience company to spread its wings into technology and natural space. They focused on local legends to tell a story that patrons could walk through. The difference with Astra Lumina—again the first in America—is that its storyline is “totally different,” according to Bentz. It’s about the night sky as opposed to legends or animals. The concept revolves around “What if the stars reached for us” and came down for us to experience.
Ruel says this was also unique in the way that Anakeesta and Moment Factory worked together hand in hand, creating the Astra Lumina walk from scratch. They built it in an untouched ravine, replanting trees and creating a path for people to walk through and experience this light show in the forest.
“The theme of the stars is universal,” Ruel says. “It speaks to young, it speaks to older people, it speaks to everyone. Because human beings always have curiosity about the sky. What is beyond the sky?” And walking through Astra Lumina perfectly executes this ethos of stars interacting with humans.
While Ruel says the walk is for anyone, young and old, it’s also for any type of night. A family of children or even teens will be amazed by large spaceships made of lights or a massive disco ball that is twice the size of a human, reflecting laser lights everywhere. It’s magical for couples, in a deeply romantic way that doesn’t involve gushy or typical romantic devices. Astra Lumina creates a feeling of being a part of something bigger, with lanterns and light rods creating an astoundingly intimate ambiance. It gave me goosebumps and made me feel weirdly close to my partner as we held hands and just gazed at a light show that was unlike anything we’d seen. Again, even though we were walking amongst families and other groups, the way it’s set up and the immersive way Astra Lumina sucks you in, we felt like we were the only two people amongst these stars on earth.
There are some fun moments of movie-like visuals too, with a portal zooming through the universe. One of the best things, though, that truly made the experience for us was the music. It had orchestration that just felt otherworldly in a gorgeous way. It added to the experience immensely. The music gave a sense of the cinematic, making participants feel like they were experiencing something colossal and seismic. The walk does try to create illusions, which can sometimes make you feel like you’re in space while still on this dirt path. It also made me get weirdly existential. Not in a bad way, not at all. It was in a very grounded, “Wow, I’m alive right now” sort of way. Again, it makes for a fantastically romantic moment if you’re with someone you share a deep connection.
While Gatlinburg is quaint, with the land and mountains around it gorgeous, it might not be a place for everyone. However, if you’re in need of or have the desire to experience something moving and beautiful in a way that mixes nature and technology, Astra Lumina—in the town’s attraction park Anakeesta—is truly a necessary experience to do at least once in your lifetime.
To learn more about visiting Astra Lumina in Anakeesta visit their website.
Words Alani Vargas
Photography Alani Vargas and official photography from Anakeesta and Moment Factory