Lantern Light Festival Celebrates Chinese Culture at Canterbury Park

While many of my friends were visiting pumpkin patches and apple orchards last weekend, my family was heading down to Shakopee for the Lantern Light Festival. When I first heard about this on the radio, I was intrigued for a few reasons: I’m a sucker for a good light display (I’ve been to Pumpkin Nights at the Minnesota State Fair, Holiday Lights in the Park, and plan on going to the Bentleyville Tour of Lights in Duluth this winter), my husband Aaron and I like to learn about different cultures—such a great opportunity for the kids to see how big this world really is, and we’re always looking for fun, new experiences for the family. Orchards and pumpkin patches will always have a special place in our hearts, but this festival sounded fun and unique.  

The first lantern light festival originated in Zigong, China nearly 2,000 years ago, when lanterns were lit as a way to worship Buddha. Over the years, the festival evolved into a Chinese New Year party celebrating the declining darkness of winter and family togetherness. Even though our timing is off and the darkness of winter is just around the corner here in Minnesota, I liked that the event provides a little peak into Chinese culture. I’m not planning any 14-hour flights to China in the near future, so was glad that event organizers brought a little bit of China to us instead.

Once at Canterbury Park, we followed signs to the 10-acre festival site—the 400-foot illuminated dragon was a dead giveaway as we drove closer—and parked in the free lot. The first thing we saw after buying our tickets was a kid-friendly area featuring a virtual reality booth, face painting, games, rides, bouncy houses, and a maze. The maze was free, the other activities required tickets for an additional fee. After spending $18/kid for general admission, we weren’t prepared to shell out more money on extra activities, and that was ok. Just admiring the lanterns and seeing the Chinese performances was enough.

And oh, those lanterns! It took months for Chinese artisans to create the massive handcrafted lantern displays (these lanterns aren’t released into the sky or sent floating down waterways, they’re firmly anchored on the ground). There’s an art to this: First the displays are hand-sketched, then full-sized layouts are drawn as blueprints, then steel rods are cut and bent into shape, then LED lights are added, and as the last step, colorful silk fabric is trimmed by hand and stretched across the lanterns. Talk about a labor of love.

There were lantern displays created just for Minnesota—a tribute to Prince, Paul Bunyan, a massive mosquito (our unofficial state bird), a loon, the iconic Spoonbridge and Cherry sculpture—as well as lotus flowers, tigers, a 30-foot-tall panda (my favorite), a tunnel portraying the four seasons, a castle, dolphins, and so much more. The illuminated lanterns were beautiful, but what made this festival so unique, in my opinion, were the free performances. Commander Lee and the Dragon City Kids embarked on a 7,200-mile journey from China to Minnesota just for this festival. Based on a tip from the bartender, we got to the stage area 10 minutes before the show started and scored front row seats.

For 30 minutes, we watched, enthralled, as women danced in Tang Dynasty-era dresses with long, flowing sleeves, a performer did an impressive balancing act with large plastic? styrofoam? bowls (during the show, my 10-year-old announced, “That is SO COOL! I wanna be friends with HIM!”), an acrobat/contortionist—she may have been part-pretzel—did a routine worthy of Cirque du Soleil (how do you make your body bend and fold like that?!), and a magician performed bian lian or face-mask changing during a Chinese Sichuan opera. In a split second, he switched his masks with a twirl of his robe and flutter of his fan—he never touched his face—and we’re still trying to figure out how he did the magic trick.

It was chilly (dress for the elements, everything is outdoors) and it wasn’t cheap, but it was a unique experience and a fun way to spend a fall evening. In the car, the boys wanted to talk about the Chinese performances, and when we got home, they really wanted to see where China is on a world map.

I consider that worth the admission price alone. 

The Lantern Light Festival runs Thursday through Sunday until October 29. Children 3 and under are free, children 3-12 are $14 on Thursdays or $18 Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays, adults are $23, seniors 65+ are $20. Hours are 5-11 p.m. The box office closes 45 minutes before the event winds down for the night. A fireworks show is planned for October 21. For more information, or to order tickets online, visit lantern-light-festival/.