A stroll for the senses

Tri-Cities area hosts large illuminated lantern and cultural festival; features 7 different exhibits including 160-foot-long dragon lantern



The Nothwest Winterfest will be open to the public at the Benton County Fairgrounds until March 20, 2022.

JOSIE GOODRICH, Reporter/Copy Editor

The Pacific Northwest’s largest illuminated lantern display and cultural celebration is currently in the Tri-Cities for the first time in its history.

The Northwest Winterfest will be held at the Benton County Fairgrounds until March 20. The festival is comprised of seven different zones celebrating culture, family, love, holidays and traditions from around the globe.

Creator Sam Song started the festival in 2015 in Spokane, where it was originally called the Washington State Chinese Lantern Festival. The event brought to life Chinese culture and lantern making, with a 160-foot-long dragon centerpiece that was awarded best large event by Visit Spokane in 2015, Song said. 

“I was inspired by the event because it was so well received by the community, and most importantly, the kids,” Song said. “There was a little kid jumping up and down in front of me after the performance, telling his mom that it was the happiest night in his life, so I was quite impacted myself. If we can bring this much joy and influence to kids in the Inland Northwest region, maybe this is something I should consider doing in the future.”

Song formed a nonprofit in 2017 to support Northwest Winterfest. He said their main goal is to try and bridge the cultural differences in the diverse Pacific Northwest. 

The pandemic prevented them from holding their first event under the new name until last year, he said. The first Northwest Winterfest took place in Spokane last year, he said. 

“It was heavily involved with Christmas celebration, but in Tri-Cities, we are heavily leaning towards kids, family, and culture in life – our original mission and goal,” Song said. “So actually in that sense, the Tri-Cities event achieved what we have planned since 2015.”

Each zone has a voice recording to give some additional information on the section’s meaning or history as well as background music that is an appropriate fit for each zone, Marketing Director Greg Birchell said. Birchell voices the section introductions himself.

In the first zone, there are lantern Christmas trees that have been painted by Northwest artists to represent 17 different cultures that reside in the Northwest, Song said. 

“You’ve got people from Brazil and different countries in Asia and Europe, and they thought it would be really wonderful to showcase some special things from each of those cultures that are represented here in the eastern Washington area primarily,” Birchell said. “And then they went and found artists and painters from each of those cultures, and asked them to actually come in and do representations on a tree.”

After leaving the Christmas tree exhibit, guests enter a panda forest that has over a dozen pandas hanging on bamboo, skateboarding or playing musical instruments. Next is a Christmas zone that has Santa, reindeer, a giant Olaf, Christmas trees and a walk-through gallery, Song said.

“So, whether Santa is coming in a month or whether he is just at his workshop, we celebrate that,” Birchell said. “We do a little recording to say that. Some of them are a little educational, but mostly they’re just for the purpose of making that section feel a little bit more special.” 

Kids Wonderland is next on the list, with a huge Kung Fu Panda and a teddy bear on the moon. A display that is specifically designed for the Northwest is included as well, Song said.

From the Kids Wonderland, guests will enter the Adventure Arch, which has a 125-foot-long light-up arch overhead that changes between over a dozen patterns, Song said.

“Sometimes you feel like you’re in a tunnel with lights, and in other moments you feel like you are in a tunnel in the ocean,” Song said. “It’s pretty neat; that’s my favorite.”

The Romantic Garden is perfect for lovers, with orchids and a prosperity arch available for loved ones to take photos together, Song said.

The last major piece is two dragons that are connected by a spinning globe with the Northwest Winterfest logo on it, spanning around 140 feet altogether, Song said. 

The festival even has its own mascot, Bow the marmot. “Kids love taking pictures with Bow, and Bow is usually stationed in the food and beverage vendor area,” Song said. “So people can grab a gourmet hot dog, funnel cake, kettle corn, and espresso along with some other local bites to enjoy.”

Guests are welcomed at the start of the festival by a short introductory video that showcases how the lanterns were constructed, as well as what the artists did to create each of their pieces, Birchell said. 

“You want people to realize that these are really special; this is not inflatable yard art that you that you buy at a home improvement store,” Birchell said. “These are really great works of art, and they’re so beautiful at night when they’re lit up, of course.”

The festival is open five days a week from 6:30-8 p.m. Thursday through Monday. Song said tickets for visitors 13 and older cost $14.90, and tickets for seniors, military, and first responders cost $12.90.

“It’s a nonprofit organization. We do this to bring culture, joy, and wonder to kids, so any kids 12 and under are free,” Song said.

In future years Song hopes to include performances and concerts that complement the displays, he said.

“We would like to become the most welcomed and beloved culture and light art festival in the region for years to come,” Song said. “For us, it’s not an investment group coming in to sell tickets and then leave. We want to establish ourselves as the premier arts, culture and light event in the region.”