Starting Friday, more than 100,000 people will tour the Triangle’s most elaborate holiday lights display – a sprawling collection of bulbs that illuminate panda bears, pagodas and a floating 200-foot dragon.
But only one Santa.
For the third year, Cary will host the NC Chinese Lantern Festival, a surprisingly popular attraction that combines an ancient craft, elements of Taoism and – during this year’s performance – a contortionist.
Each lantern – shaped into mushrooms, peacocks and a 15-foot caterpillar – arrives made from silk stretched over a steel frame, designed in China and shipped to Cary inside 19 tractor-trailers. For two and a half weeks, a team of 25 Chinese workers assembles them in a circle around Koka Booth Amphitheater, reflecting in the water of Symphony Lake.
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“It takes a lot of imagining,” said Lyman Collins, Cary’s cultural arts manager. “It takes a lot of inventiveness. They even bring their own food.”
Attendance doubled last year to 90,000 with more expected this holiday, including hours on Christmas Day. Every lantern piece is new except the dragon, which weighs 18,000 pounds, stretches longer than three school buses and spits water into the lake.
Only three other cities host similar fests: Indianapolis; Columbus, Ohio; and Little Rock, Ark.
“No one knew what it was going to be like when it started,” Collins said. But the festival is under contract for the next three years.
Along with the displays, visitors will see traditional dancers, jugglers and the celebrated contortionist.
But around the ring of lanterns, they will encounter Caishen, the Chinese god of prosperity, noted for his ability to turn stones and iron into gold.
All around him at Koka Booth sit yellow bundles of treasure – wealth for the Triangle’s coming year.
NC Chinese Lantern Festival
Where: Koka Booth Amphitheater in Cary.
Hours: Runs from Friday through Jan. 14. Displays are open Tuesdays through Sundays between 6 p.m and 10 p.m. The event is open on both Christmas and New Year’s Day.
Cost: Tickets are $15 for adults, $10 for children 3 to 17 and free for children 2 and under.