Guide to the Chinese Lantern Festival at Koka Booth Amphitheater, Cary (2023)

“Wow! I never expected this to be so great.” was my reaction as soon as I entered the gates to the North Carolina Chinese Lantern Festival and walked through a tunnel of white lanterns depicting a story of the Monkey King creating havoc in Heaven.

chinese lantern festival cary nc 15
We all loved it.

And that was nothing compared to what was to come. “I want to go back to China,” I turned to Savannah. “Do you want me to take you? There are magical ancient cities in China like Dali and Lijiang that daddy and I have been to that have this traditional kind of magic.”

chinese lantern festival cary nc 1
Monkey King Lanterns

Of course, Savannah agreed. She has my Seeker Spirit. We later found out as we walked by the Chinese Zodiac displays, that we’re also Rabbits. How it escaped me for 12 years that she was also Year of the Rabbit is beyond me. #KindredSpirit

Mom and daughter standing next to a Rabbit lantern of light.
Year of the Raibbit

So, if you’re wondering if the NC Chinese Lantern Festival at Koka Booth Amphitheater in Cary is worth attending, it’s a resounding yes. It’s a unique Holiday experience in Raleigh.

About the NC Chinese Lantern Festival

People gathered in front of a Chinese temple of lights.
Chinese Palace

It’s a spectacular event that blends traditional Chinese artistry with modern technology to create an enchanting experience for visitors of all ages. This popular walk-through festival takes place every year from November to January and helps brighten up the Wake County holiday season.

The stunning collection of illuminated lanterns depict various themes and creates a magical and vibrant atmosphere.

Illuminated dragon on a lake.
Illuminated dragon on the lake.

2023 was our first visit to this top annual event in Raleigh – I’m regretful it took us this many years to go! Don’t make the same mistake as us. And with tickets starting at $9, it’s quite an affordable Holiday event.

In 2023, the NC Chinese Lantern Festival will be held Nov 17, 2023, to January 14, 2024. There will be a sensory friendly night Dec. 6, presented with We Rock the Spectrum Cary.

An Ancient Tradition Comes Alive in Cary

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Umbrellas reflected on the lake

While this is only the 8th year of the Chinese Lantern Festival in Cary, traditional Chinese Lantern festivals date back 2,000 years to the Han Dynasty.

Since then, festivals have been celebrated on the 15th day of the first month in the lunar calendar, marking the last day of the lunar New Year. (generally, February or March)

Originally, lanterns were used for practical purposes such as lighting the way and symbolizing hope and prosperity. Over time, the lanterns transformed into intricate and artistic displays, becoming an integral part of Chinese culture and celebrations.

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Lantern festivals date back 2,000 years

The tradition of the lantern festival has since spread globally, captivating audiences with its beauty and cultural significance.

Since its first year in 2015, this NC festival has grown from 60,000 attendees to 2022’s record-breaking 216,000 visitors from all 50 states and six countries! An extra week has been added to the festival this year to cater to its popularity!

The festival is produced by Tianyu Arts & Culture Inc in partnership with the Town of Cary. Most lanterns are made in only one city: Zigong, in the Sichuan province, the lantern capital of China for many centuries.

Chinese man at a lantern festival of lights.
Thousands of years of history

40 Chinese artisans and performers arrive in Cary early November to set up the lanterns by hand and prepare for the cultural performances held over the duration of this holiday event! We’re one of the few cities in the USA that host this incredible event.

Only Seattle, Oakland, Oklahoma City, Little Rock, and suburban Orlando host the Tianyu-produced Chinese lantern festivals during this holiday season.

2023 Chinese Lantern Displays at the Festival

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Illuminated tiger lantern

The main attraction of the festival is, of course, the dazzling lantern displays. Visitors can expect to see a wide array of lanterns featuring traditional Chinese symbols, mythical creatures, and iconic landmarks.

The intricate craftsmanship and vibrant colors make each lantern a work of art, and the displays are strategically arranged to create a visually stunning journey through the festival grounds.

Rabbits illuminated at a lights festival.
Something for all ages!

Take time to contemplate that each lantern is created by hand on silk fabric that is stretched over steel frames and then lit with upwards of hundreds of LED!

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Illuminated swings in front of the Chinese Palace

It’s quite awe-inspiring, especially when you see the size of some of them like the 3-ton Chinese Palace standing 164 feet long and 52 feet tall, taking up much of the theater’s lawn area.

Don’t worry if you’ve been before, this year, in 2023, there will be 40 all new displays centered around three themes: Peach Banquet, Chinese Lore, and Mysterious World.

In Chinese culture, peaches mean longevity, health and luck. For extra fortune, pay attention to the prominence of red to bring good luck into your 2024.

monkey king lantern
Monkey King holding a peach

The spectacular Chinese Dragon floating on Symphony Lake is longer than three school buses at approximately 200 feet. It stands 21 feet high and weighs 18,000 pounds.

I also enjoyed the pathway of crystals and dragons that run alongside Symphony Lake. On another small pond along the way is a stunning light display with reflections called Pu Lao, a mythical creature with the body of a lion and the head of a Qi Lin.

Dragons and crystals illuminated at a lights festival.
Crystals and dragons next to Symphony Lake

In Feng Shui, Pu Lao is an auspicious symbol used for dispelling negative energy, inviting blessings, and enhancing financial luck. We paused for a while at that one!

Illuminated dragon boat on the water.
Chinese Dragon boat on Symphony Lake
pu lao illuminated lantern on water with reflections
Pu Lao – may the luck be with you

Below are a few more lanterns to love. Naughty Monkey King locked in a cauldron for 49 days. This was a cool one as the monkey moved up and down out of the cauldron.

Monkey coming out of a pot at a Chinese lantern festival.
Monkey King

Mythical Creature Lou Yu fell in love with a human, who ended up rejecting him, Luo Tu used its power to start vengeful flood. It flaps its wings!

Mythical Creature Lou Yu illuminated.
Mythical Creature Lou Yu

One of the many dragons along the crystal pathway.

Illuminated dragon.
This dragon was also interactive

There are signs next to each display telling you more of the Chinese lore and stories behind each one. It’s a fascinating way to learn more about Chinese culture, especially that cheeky Monkey King causing havoc around the festival grounds. It’s such an engaging way for kids to learn about Chinese culture.

Interactive Light Displays

Young girl looking at a display of lighted lanterns.
See your fortune

Another reason families will love the Chinese festival are the interactive light displays, many of which are geared towards younger children.

At the foot of the Chinese palace are jumping light stations, cannonballs that fire smoke, swinging illuminated chairs and a fun booth you walk through that has swinging lights that give off a mystical bubble aura.

Young girl standing under a light display.
The Panda Head

There are fun illuminated photo booths set up with rabbit displays and panda heads. Don’t miss the Blessing Wall! You press a button on a wall of lanterns, and it will randomly choose one, which speaks of your fortune for the year. Mine was Unity!

There is no need to rush through the festival.

Don’t miss the Chinese Cultural Arts Performances

Sign promoting a Chinese Lantern Festival.
Wonderful live performances

In addition to the visual feast of lanterns, the festival often includes live cultural and acrobatic performances nightly. The performances run for about 30 minutes and provide further insight into the rich cultural tapestry of China.

On our evening, we had some beautiful, costumed face-changing mask dance and an Arabian princess dance with colored streamers.

Cheeky Monkey King came out for a special dance, followed by the revered Chinese lion, who danced out in the crowd twerking and entertaining the kids.

Kids will also love the martial arts performance. Not only do they get to see the quick, athletic moves of the martial arts performers, but they pull a group of kids from the audience up to participate in a short martial arts lesson.

These performances add an extra layer of authenticity and entertainment to the overall experience.

Performances are included in admission and occur at 5:30, 6:30, 7:30, and 8:30 p.m.

Asian Inspired Eats to Enjoy

Man standing under an arch of illumined lights.
Food & drinks are available

The festival also has food on offer at the cafe with Asian inspired eats including the Bon Chon Korean Chicken Sandwich, Crispy Spring Rolls, Sweet & Sour Chicken Bites Wonton Soup, Kimchi Fried Rice, and Cinnamon Sugar Glazed Donut Holes.

Grab warm gingerbread with whipped cream, and/or a hot chocolate (plain or spiked) to enjoy while you wander around the lantern displays. Food Trucks will be on-site Friday & Saturday only.

Illuminated mermaid and mythical creature.
Illuminated mermaid and mythical creature

You cannot bring your own food, but you can bring a factory sealed water bottle, which really ANNOYS me, because I don’t like to drink from plastic water bottles because of environmental issues. I think all venues need to come up with better solutions to allow people to enter with their own refillable bottles to protect the environment. Billie Eilish did it for her concert at PNC so I think all venues can. #rantover

Tips for a Great Time at the Chinese Lantern Festival

Illuminated Chinese man at a light festival.
Follow the below tips.

  1. Buy Tickets in Advance: The festival can draw large crowds, so it’s advisable to purchase tickets in advance to avoid long lines at the entrance. Prices are more if bought at the gate. The flexibility of an Any night ticket, allows you to visit when it suits you. They’re $30. Date Specific tickets on the other hand range from $9-$20. See ticket options here.
  2. Arrive Early: To make the most of your visit and capture the full beauty of the lanterns, consider arriving early in the evening when the lights first come on. We like going right on dusk as it’s fun to see the lanterns in the closing daylight hours as well as nighttime. There is a special Twilight Ticket with hours: Tues – Sunday, 4:30pm – 10pm. $15-$25.
  3. Avoid weekends and holiday evenings. Beat the crowds by visiting on the quieter weekdays (and when the weather is a little cooler!)
  4. Take your time: It takes most guests about 45-75 minutes to view all the display. But once, in you are not on a time limit so enjoy!
  5. Dress Accordingly: The festival takes place outdoors, so check the weather forecast and dress accordingly. Comfortable shoes are recommended for walking through the expansive festival grounds.
  6. Bring a Camera: The lanterns are incredibly photogenic, and you’ll want to capture the magical moments. Don’t forget to bring a camera or smartphone with a fully charged battery.
Illuminated bear at a lights festival.
You won’t miss these guys at the exit!
  1. Explore the Entire Grounds: The lantern displays are strategically arranged to create a thematic journey. Take your time to explore the entire festival grounds to fully appreciate the diverse range of lanterns and cultural experiences.
  2. Enjoy the Cultural Performances: Make sure to check the schedule for live performances and plan your visit around them. The cultural performances add depth to the festival experience.
  3. Sample the Cuisine: Don’t miss out on the opportunity to try authentic Chinese and international dishes. Consider sharing a few items with friends or family to experience a variety of flavors.
  4. Carry Light: To expediate your move through security, consider arriving without a bag so you can go through the no bag line. Check the bag policies. Small Clutch Purses no larger 4.5″ x 6.5″, Clear Bags no larger than 12″ x 12″ x 9″ are allowed. Medical and parenting bags can be brought in.
  5. Participate in Activities: Take advantage of any interactive activities or workshops offered. It’s a chance to engage with Chinese culture in a hands-on way and make your visit more memorable.
  6. Parking is free but limited to 1500 spaces. You can pay $10 for premium parking.
  7. See our Reel of the 2023 NC Chinese Lantern Festival.

Other Christmas Events in the Raleigh area

From Dec 1 – Dec 12, 2023, we’ll be hosting a huge 12 days of Christmas Giveaway. Click to read more and join our email community so you don’t miss out!

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