We chose a night to go - Friday, 2 October 2015 - and rocked up to Greaves Reserve (Dandenong Showgrounds) around 7pm. There was ample parking, and it was needed: there was a queue of people lining up for tickets probably 300 metres long. An usher said it would be the busiest night of the event's duration (why, I'm not sure). The queue moved quickly though - we probably reached the gate within ten minutes - but I did make a mental note for next time, to buy tickets online beforehand.
The entrance was promising: a huge, intricate, colourful archway, lit up against the night sky, framed by extra lanterns in the trees around it. At the top of the trees were also some moving lights, kind of like blue-and-white downward shooting stars, or the remnants of a burst of fireworks as the sparkles scatter down at the end.
Once through the archway, you enter a pathway lined on either side with yellow moons. Initially, I thought they were bananas (hey, easy mistake to make!), but I guess bananas don't have faces and moons sometimes do - at least in folklore and kids' picture books. They looked pretty happy, but front-on they seemed more sinister.
At the end of the path was a huge castle that, initially, I wasn't that impressed by. A bit of a cliche, surely; pandering to little girls' fantasies of royalty, perhaps... But, up close, you could see it was constructed of Chinese crockery! That would have taken a lot of work. Impressed face restored.
At the castle, we veered off to the left to a section with live Chinese music being performed on a stage, near a (not literal) sea of bright and beautiful sea animals and plants, land animals like rams, a dragon...
...and my favourite: a little boy statue atop some sea animals, naked, peeing out a stream of water onto the crowd of onlookers. Aptly named "The Naughty Boy", he was definitely a hit with the littlies, and I found him most amusing - cheeky and entertaining!
Passing back behind the castle, we came to a pathway of repeated square arches, almost tribal in design. Up close, the patterns looked kind of Art Deco: bold colours; slightly abstract; thick black lines separating the shapes. I liked them.
Then we followed a bunch of flowers which I thought were waratahs, but as my boyfriend pointed out: why would there be a focus on waratahs in Melbourne? (I forgot they are the state flower of New South Wales, not Victoria. What is the state flower of Victoria? Is there one?!) They were probably some variety of flower more commonly found in China, like the lotus flowers later on. I really should have paid more attention to the accompanying signs. (Which, when I did read them, could have used a proofreader's eye. Then again, the broken Chinglish added a certain kind of magical charm.)
Across the path were a mass of little pandas. Cute! And small enough for kiddies to pose with. (And me. Bending down.) Lots of people were taking photos in and around all the light displays, but most seemed pretty respectful of other peoples' photo space. The only downside was that the lights were so bright, that in the photo, you often couldn't see the person posed in the darkness next to the display. (At least not without some awesome photoshopping.)
Around the bend - dinosaurs! A big T-Rex was more effective with a soundbox buried nearby, voicing Grrrrrs and Raaaahhhhs, or whatever noises dinosaurs make. Other kinds of dinosaurs (littler, more colourful ones) were nearby, presumably to distract any kids who might have been scared by the big Tyrannosaurus.
Along the back path, leaf and flower patterns were propped up against the wall, giving a rather hypnotising effect.
Then were all the signs of the Chinese zodiac. (Yeah, Dogs! Faithful and honest, yuh huh. The pig was cute too, though I am partial to pigs. This one looked jolly and calm at the same time.)
More beautiful flowers, impressively arranged at various heights with colours and different textures for effect - then a massive fan, decorated with more flowers and butterflies.
Some lovely, tall (but in comparison to other displays, nondescript) tulips made me momentarily proud again of my Dutch heritage, and led the way to another pathway lined with angry red totems (or giant sex aids, if you will).
Chilled-out swans and flamingos pre-empted penguins propped upon an iceberg, and an amazing peacock with a beautiful, symmetrical train.
Rows of pinwheels emitted a psychedelic blue light, and a herd of leggy ants and insects conversed quietly under some trees. By then, we were at the other end of the square archways and back near the initial entrance.
I found the entire event surprisingly impressive. There was a huge array of light sculptures, bright and colourful enough to appeal to kids, but produced and arranged artfully enough to appeal to adults. Everything was neatly laid out in logical paths around the grounds, some majority of displays subtly roped off to discourage unwanted climbers. I liked the interactive displays (the boy peeing, the dinosaur roaring) and how some displays were obviously designed for photo ops. I personally could have done without the music, but I guess it did add to the atmosphere. There were a couple of food trucks onsite that we didn't visit, but it was good that amenities like that were provided.
The event was clearly very well organised, but didn't feel over-policed or contrived in any way; it was just easy, and fun. The light displays were so pretty and magical, that I thought they were well worth the $20 entry fee. I would definitely recommend you check it out while you can.
The Dandenong Festival of Lights runs from 11 September to 18 October 2015, from 6pm to 10pm daily.