If you build it

Austin's whimsical interactive tree fort exhibition returns for fall family fun

Austin's interactive tree fort event returns for whimsical family fun

Fortlandia Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center
Fortlandia returns in time for the cooler tempatures. Photo by Brian Birzer/Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center
Fortlandia Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center
Yes, even tall people will enjoy playing in these forts. Photo by Brian Birzer/Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center
Fortlandia Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center
Fortlandia Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center

A whimsical interactive exhibition is popping back into Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. Beginning October 5 through January 31, 2021, Fortlandia returns to the center's Mollie Steves Zachry Texas Arboretum for its third year, showcasing nine new forts and an opportunity for visitors to build their very own. 

Each year, local artists and design firms are tasked with building the fantastical forts, which people can then meander through at their own pace. This year, the forts have been designed as "secret hideaways" tucked along a one-mile trail through the Wildflower Center. Native oaks and expansive outdoor spaces serve as the picturesque backdrop for this fanciful experience. 

After a spring and summer of cancellations and closures, organizers say the response to the third annual Fortlandia has been overwhelmingly positive, adding that the news has been met with "pure excitement."

Though the pandemic delayed picking the winners for this year's Fortlandia, the Wildflower Center's deputy director Lee Clippard says the setback didn't curb any of the enthusiasm for the anticipated event.

"Though we got a bit of a late start this year in accepting submissions and selecting our 2020 designs, the designers and builders have been very excited to continue the Fortlandia tradition," Clippard shares. "They’ve been hard at work the past few weeks installing their forts alongside our staff and volunteers. We can’t wait to unveil them this weekend to our members and, beginning October 5, to the general public."

Early this month, the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center announced who is participating in this year's Fortlandia, a list consisting mostly of Austin-based architecture and design firms. Fourth Workshop, Letterpress PLAY, Mark Odom Studio, Perkins and Will, Point B Design Group, Pollen Architecture & Design, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, Thalweg LLC and Blue Sky Design & Build, and Webber + Studio Architects have all been tapped to create forts for 2020.

Along with the expert-designed spaces, Fortlandia is also offering a place to build your own temporary structure. Use reusable and upcycled materials to construct a fort of your very own in the Fort Build area or watch others create the fort of their dreams.

To help guide visitors through Fortlandia, the Wildflower Center is issuing Passforts, a free field guide with a mini map and creative prompts to help "doodle, document, journal, and invent." The Passforts are free, available in English and Spanish, and can be enjoyed by all ages. 

In this age of COVID-19, the Wildflower Center, which is owned by the University of Texas at Austin, has implemented a series of safety measures, including masks for those ages 10 and up. The mask may be removed only when outside and when socially distanced from members not in your own party.

"Of course, we wish that we could have unlimited entry and welcome big crowds this year, but we will continue to have limited, timed entry to help facilitate that safe experience," says Clippard. "The arboretum is full of wide open spaces and, in addition to Fortlandia, treasures such as the historic oaks in our Texas Hall of Heroes, wooden swings under the trees, and picnic spots. There’s plenty of room to spread out and have a great adventure."

The center also asks that visitors practice good hand-washing hygiene while at Fortlandia; maintain at least six feet of distance; and wear masks while at the admission kiosk, in the bathrooms and gift store, and when in confined spaces, such as the forts or while browsing at the plant sale.

Fortlandia opens October 5 with a special Lady Bird Wildflower Center member's sneak peek happening October 3-4. Tickets are available for purchase up to one week in advance, and priced at $12 for adults; $6 for ages 5-17; and free for children under 4, University of Texas students, faculty, and staff (with an ID). 

"Fortlandia has become a community favorite," Clippard says, "and is a wonderful opportunity for kids and adults alike to get outside, enjoy our Texas Arboretum, play, laugh and experience these unique and fantastic designs."