2023 – 2024 Chinese Lantern Festival: November 17 – January 14
Every year Koka Booth Amphitheatre in Cary lights up with the amazing NC Chinese Lantern Festival. Typically starting just before Thanksgiving, the festival runs through mid-January.
Chinese artisans craft the displays, each comprised of thousands of LED lights. These are not your typical lanterns, they’re life-size (or larger) pieces of art. There are scenes with pandas playing, a huge dragon boat on the water, a beautiful courtyard display, and flowers. Some of the displays are interactive like the two birds that repeat words spoken into a microphone. Other displays move like the dinosaurs that roar and twitch their tails.
Cultural Arts Performers take the stage at 5:30 pm, 6:30 pm, 7:30 pm, and 8:30 pm where they demonstrate incredible talent including mastering the Chinese Yo-Yo and balancing items such as tables on their feet. Grab a cup of cocoa (with or without booze) and prepare to be awed.
We attend the festival every year and it’s different each time. The organizers strive to outdo themselves every year.
What to Expect at the Chinese Lantern Festival
The festival is designed for you to walk through at your own pace. General tickets allow entry from 6 to 10 pm. You can enter anytime from 6 to 9 pm. However, both the Twilight Ticket Experience and the VIP Tour Experience tickets allow entry at 4:30 pm.
As you enter, you’ll walk through a tunnel of lights leading you to the interior of the amphitheater. After emerging from the tunnel, the walkway helps you flow in the right direction. It’s approximately half a mile to see the lights and usually takes an hour, but we always wind up spending at least two hours.
Between enjoying the lights, watching the show, playing in the play area (adults can enjoy it too), and taking time for an “enhanced” hot chocolate, it’s a full evening.
In 2022, they introduced an interactive play area. Parents could purchase wands for their children which activated colors and sounds at several stations. There were also swings that glowed which made for great photos.
Children and adults alike loved the smoke balls. Think of it as a bubble machine except the balls appear solid. If you try to touch one, it dissolves into smoke.
You can explore the play area when you first enter or wait until you’re finished viewing the displays. Since it’s located close to the entrance and exit, you’ll run into it again.
Lights and Displays
You can’t miss the palace across from the performance stage. It’s the perfect backdrop for photos.
The dragon boat is always an eye-catcher with its bright orange and yellow colors. There’s also a beautiful scene of a white building on a lake. Bright colors pop against the white and the image reflects in the water. On a clear night, it is stunning.
Last year there were several scenes with pandas in various poses lining the way. Beyond the pandas were dinosaurs that moved and roared. As we continued walking, there was a lantern for each animal of the Chinese Zodiak. All you had to do was find the animal with the year you were born and get a photo.
Tickets for the Chinese Lantern Festival
This is a bit complicated. There are several different types of tickets. You can purchase tickets in advance and save $5 per ticket, or you can purchase at the door. Children 2 and under are free and do not require a ticket. You can learn more on the official site.
Any Night Tickets cost a bit more but can be used on any night the festival is open. This is a great option if you know you want to go but don’t have a date selected. The cost for an Any Night Ticket is the same for everyone.
Date Specific Tickets cost less but they’re only valid for the specific date you choose. Date Specific Tickets may also be offered at a discount for special groups such as children under 13, military, seniors (55+), and college students.
Twilight Ticket Experience offers early admission, 90 minutes prior to the general opening. If you purchase a Twilight Ticket, you can enter the festival at 4:30 pm and stay through 10 pm. This allows you to see the lanterns during Golden Hour. Twilight Tickets are date specific. There is a discount for children 3-12.
VIP (Very Important Panda) Tour Experience tickets include a 45-minute tour where you can learn how the lanterns are made and shipped from China to North Carolina. Tours are only available on Mondays and begin at 4:30 pm. There is a discount for children 3-12. These are popular and sell out fast.
Sensory Friendly Night Tickets allow entry on Wednesday, December 6th and include lower decibel music, and less crowds. They also stop any strobe or flashing lights, and provide a quiet area to decompress.
NOTE: Once you enter the park, you cannot leave and come back. Re-entry is not allowed.
There are No Refunds
The event goes on rain or shine; however, it may close in the event of severe weather. Since this is North Carolina, that means an inch of snow. There is a weather hotline number to check in case of extreme weather.
Limitations to What You Can Bring Inside
Security is tight at the festival, and you are limited to what you can carry inside.
When it comes to bags and purses, only small clutch purses no larger than 4.5” X 6.5’, a clear bag no larger than 12” X 12” X 9”, and any medical, parenting, or camera bag are allowed. Security was on top of the bags and actively sending people back with purses that didn’t meet the size restrictions.
The best thing to do is grab your wallet and phone and leave the purse at home.
Outside food and drink are not allowed in the festival area. The only exception is a factory-sealed water bottle.
You can see a complete list of what is allowed and what is prohibited on the main site.
Parking is free and readily available in front of Koka Booth amphitheater. You may be blocked from turning left into the front lot if you arrive right at 6 pm because they reserve it for Twilight Tickets. It will open to everyone just after.
Don’t worry though, you can easily just turn right into the second lot.
Handicap parking is available in the main lot.
There is a hot chocolate truck near the stage and several food vendors near the entrance and exit. While I wouldn’t advise counting on it as dinner, if you need a snack or want something hot to help warm you up, there are plenty of options.
Is the NC Lantern Festival Worth the Cost?
This is one of the most spectacular light shows in North Carolina. The ticket prices are more than reasonable for what you get in return.
Free parking, an evening of beautiful lights, crazy good performances, games for the kids (and adults), and an evening out with the family make this one of the best seasonal deals around.
The organizers strive to improve the event every year and it does change, making it worthy of an annual pilgrimage.
I’m a huge fan of North Carolina festivals and I would put this one as a solid yes on the “let’s go every year” list.