The star of the show arrived months ago, shrouded in hundreds of yards of brightly colored Chinese silk and surrounded by thousands of bright lights. She travels with no fewer than five semitrailers, and 33 assistants work for hours to ensure she’s put together and ready to light up the night.
At 400 feet long, the dragon lantern is a highlight of the Lantern Light Festival, held at Canterbury Park in Shakopee Thursdays through Sundays ending Oct. 29.
Visitors can see dozens of oversized fabric lanterns in various shapes spread throughout the 10-acre site, including some specially made for Minnesota. There’s one dedicated to Prince, along with a loon, a replica of the Walker Art Center’s Spoon Bridge and Cherry sculpture and a 20-foot mosquito.
There are many Chinese lantern festivals around the country but the others are stationary and often city-sponsored, said Stan Parnes, the show’s production manager.
“It’s Chinese lanterns that are hand-built,” Parnes said. “I have to build it in each city.”
The show is owned by Pinnacle Production Group and cost about $2.2 million to produce, Parnes said. Shakopee is the festival’s third site after visiting Miami and Memphis in the last year. When the Shakopee show is over, some of the lanterns will go to Seattle while others head to Tulsa for other lantern displays, Parnes said.
Attendance has been so strong, Parnes said, that the show was held over an extra week.
Lantern construction took 50 workers about a month to complete, Parnes said. The materials arrived from Zigong, a city in Sichuan Province, and travel from city to city in 30 semis.
“It’s kind of like the circus without the train,” Parnes said.
Most of the workers have since returned home to work in the hundreds of lantern factories in their city, but four people stay with the exhibit to fix broken lights and torn fabric, Parnes said.
The show also features Chinese food vendors, inflatables, robotic animals, miniature golf and performances by a crew of Chinese acrobats called Commander Lee and the Dragon City Kids.
The group — a trainer and seven performers, ranging in age from 16 to 32 — hails from Chengdu, another city in Sichuan Province. They put on four outdoor shows a night at the Lantern Light Festival, performing a traditional face-changing dance with masks, gymnastics feats and balancing acts.
The travel with their own cook, stay at an Airbnb in St. Louis Park and speak little English, said Joe Yu, a University of Minnesota student who translates for the Chinese workers.
The youth have been training since they were 5 years old to perform in touring acts like operas and circuses.
In part because of a fascination with American movie stars, some have taken American names, including Linda, Judy, Vivian and Celia, Yu said.
“They told me they love the people here,” Yu said, adding that they already find Minnesota’s climate very cold.
They love the Mall of America and the Cedar Grove outlet mall in Eagan, where they buy clothes and shoes, Yu said.
Acrobatics isn’t an unusual occupation where the performers are from, Yu said, and they can make a good living. But when they hit their mid- to late-20s, they will be too old and have to find a new line of work.
Lantern festivals are common in China, Yu said. Usually held between January and March to celebrate the Lunar New Year, they are a time to gather with family.
Jaclyn Johnson of Brooklyn Park said she liked that the event was kid-oriented and different from anything she had seen. But the ticket price — adults are $23 and kids are $18, except on Thursdays when they are $14 — might keep her from coming back, she said.
Chad Nelson and wife Marcy took their 5-year-old son to the festival last weekend.
“It’s beautiful,” Chad Nelson said. “We go to Bentleyville [a Christmas light show in Duluth] and we compared it to that.”