Festival of Light: Chinese Lantern Festival (Cary NC)

Where: Koka Booth Amphitheatre in Cary NC

What: NC Chinese Lantern Festival

Every year as the sun falls into deep darkness, and the chill of wintertide breathes it’s frosty breath, The Town of Cary, North Carolina illuminates the night with a festival of glistening lantern light…the ‘fire’ of a dragon brings to life a Chinese wonderland of color and light at The Koka Booth Amphitheatre’s NC Chinese Lantern Festival.

Located twenty minutes from my home base of Raleigh, NC, Cary’s Koka Booth is one of my favorite spots to catch a summer concert. The venue is surrounded by forest paths and the tranquility of Symphony Lake… In the warmer months, Koka Booth is home to the North Carolina Symphony’s Summerfest and has played host to major touring artists like Paul Simon and Pat Benatar.

Since 2015, Koka Booth has been home to the Chinese Lantern Festival, which lures over 200,000 annual visitors across North Carolina to be transported from central NC to the wonder, mystery and magnificence of Chinese culture.

Held from November to early January, the festival is a partnership with The Town of Cary and Tianyu (authentic lantern and events specialists). Each night visitors are treated to more than 2500 authentic Chinese lanterns telling the story of China combined with myth and fantasy that captivate the young and old of heart.

It is hard to describe how awesome the lanterns are until you see them in person. Each lantern has so much detail and comes to life with movement and a kaleidoscope of color.

I was taken aback by the artistry and intricate design in these larger than life lanterns. Each design whether a dragon or panda or dinosaur is authentic in the character and Chinese artistry of lantern making.

Each lantern was designed and approved by Chinese artisans…each of the displays comprised of hundreds of parts and thousands of LED lights.

The lanterns are grouped by theme, with forty installations from a Chinese Garden to Panda Forest and more.

Fun Facts:

  • The art of Chinese lantern making dates back more than 2000 years to the Han Dynasty. Most traditional Chinese lantern festivals are celebrated on the 15th day of the first month in the lunar calendar, marking the last day of the lunar New Year.
  • Over 14,000 LED lights illuminate the lanterns
  • 25 artisans helped create the lanterns; Lanterns are designed exclusively for this event with materials shipped from China into the North Carolina Ports in Wilmington.
    • It then takes 15+ tractor trailers to deliver materials for our visiting artisans to assemble this year’s thirty-six lantern groups.
    • The visiting Chinese artisans have lantern-crafting skills that are passed down from one generation to the next.
  • The spectacular Chinese Dragon floating on Symphony Lake is longer than three school buses at approximately 200 feet. It stands 21 feet hight and weighs over 18,000 pounds!
    • The dragon’s head was installed by a crane with a 15-person crew!
  • Each lantern is created by hand on silk fabric stretched over steel frames and lit with upwards of hundreds of LED
  • Most lanterns are made in only one city: Zigong, in the Sichuan province, the lantern capital of China for hundreds of years.
  • Click here to learn more about the history of Chinese lanterns.

In addition to the AMAZING lights, you can enjoy performances celebrating Chinese culture. Acrobats to Martial Artists perform fun and interactive sets to entertain the entire family.

Enjoy a (spiked) hot chocolate and Chinese gingerbread as you meander the forests of lights, discovering wonders in this magical fantasy land.

  • While I loved all the lights, my favorite installations were the dragons (with personality plus), adorable pandas (because who doesn’t love pandas) and the magical worlds of the Chinese palace to gardens…kids will enjoy the dinosaurs – which interestingly enough are representations of dinosaurs species that were native to China!

You can easily spend several hours enjoying the festival – taking time to visit the installations multiple times, enjoying the show and grabbing a bite to eat at one of the food trucks.

While this is a walking trail versus a drive through event, the majority of lanterns are handicap accessible.

The main issue you’ll face will be crowds. I recommend a few things to avoid feeling like a sardine…

  • Visit on a weeknight. We went on Tuesday night – arriving just after six and the crowd was easy to maneuver and we had no issues with parking.
  • Purchase your tickets in advance online, this will speed up the process when you arrive at the festival.
  • For complete hours/admission click here.

Other tips:

  • Wear comfortable walking shoes
  • Bundle up – it can get chilly
  • Don’t bring a purse – I had to keep mine in the car because of bag size requirements. I instead used a small over the neck wallet with room for my phone in my coat pocket.
  • Feel free to bring a camera!

Love the idea of the lantern festival, but not local to Raleigh-Cary area? The event producer also hosts similar Chinese lantern events throughout the US…click here to check your area listings.

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