The inaugural Magical Winter Lights lantern festival is huge. Like ginormous. There are more than 100 lantern sets (more on that in a minute), a full carnival, a large food court and a busy schedule of live performances. The lantern displays, each a replica of a famous landmark from around the world, are spread over more than nine acres; the carnival over another 200,000 square feet and the dinosaurs dot an immense wooded area. (Oh, did we forget to mention the dinosaurs?)
Some $10 million is being poured into the festival, one of fewer than ten that will take place in the United States this year. It all seems highly ambitious. “It is,” laughs producer Yusi An of People Generation Global Communications. “I didn't want to take baby steps. Lantern festivals have to be large scale otherwise you don't see the beauty of them. When people hear about a lantern festival, they think of the small lanterns hanging outside Chinese restaurants.”
These aren't like that. They're towering constructions, more like over-sized movie sets, carefully constructed in China to about 80 percent completion and then shipped to Houston for final assembly. Some 70 lantern artists from all over China have been in Houston for the last month, putting the final touches on the festival structures.
"Of course, the technology has improved so much over the last 20 years, they're able to do some amazing things."
An's family is from Zigong, China, which is known as the Lantern Town in the South Kingdom. (The city's also famous for the dinosaur finds uncovered there, hence the dinos in the festival.) She grew up attending the annual festivals. She's been living in the United States for the last five years. Given Houston's culturally diverse population and mild winter weather, she decided the city would be perfect for an outdoor Chinese lantern festival festival.
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“My goal is to bring a new holiday tradition to Houston. I want Houston to enjoy a new kind of light festival.”
The Eiffel Tower, Mayan pyramids and Roman Colosseum are among the landmarks seen at the festival. “Of course, we have something especially for Houstonians. We have the Houston Live Stock and Rodeo, the space shuttle and the sports teams. We're also recreating the [Gerald D. Hines] Waterwall.
“People have started noticing the construction when they drive by. An Indian family stopped by the other day. They saw the Taj Majal being built and they were excited about a festival that would have a part of their culture.”
5 to 10 p.m. Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays; 1 to 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 1 to 10 p.m. Sundays. Through January 10, 2016. Sam Houston Race Park, 7575 North Sam Houston Parkway West. For information, visit magicalwinterlights.com. $16 to $27.