Skyful of Glowing Orbs

Magical Moments at Lantern Fest

Conner Newbold Mar 15, 2019

A night spent in the company of friends, basking in the warmth of a crackling campfire and nodding to the chill vibes of live acoustic music — it’s a scene captured in the memory, triggering waves of nostalgia in years to come.

At least that’s what T.R. Gourley, creator of Lantern Fest, hopes will happen when at his event. He designed it to be a fun, friendly, community affair, but then he upped the ante by adding a magical finale: After the sun sets and the fires die down, on cue festival-goers release their lanterns. As thousands of lanterns gracefully drift away, the gently glowing orbs evoke an indescribable mix of adrenaline, thrill and serene awe — creating that memorable moment of Gourley’s dreams.

Ancient Event Reinvented

Lantern Fest happens twice a year in Utah — the next is at the Utah Motorsports Campus on May 18 — and dozens more times at various spots around the country. They’re well-attended — the smallest events draw around 5,000 people, while the best-attended draw up to 30,000. For the cost of admission, each attendee receives a lantern.

As you might expect, the lantern festival concept isn’t entirely original. For more than 2,000 years, traditional lantern festivals marked the final day of Chinese New Year.

Most Asian cultures have some variation on the idea. But they generally don’t include food trucks, bonfires, face painting and bounce houses.

“Really, I just Americanized it,” Gourley says. “I put campfires out there, brought s’mores, some acoustic music. I tried to make it as family friendly as possible. I don’t think there’s enough clean, family friendly entertainment out there.”

Reassuring the Skeptics

Not only is Lantern Fest good for families, it’s safe for the environment — though early on, the idea of sending thousands of flaming balls of cardboard, paraffin wax and paper drifting into the wind was met with skepticism.

“The venues would say, ‘That’s a great idea, we’d love to do it,’” Gourley says. “Then the fire chief would come in and say, ‘There’s no way!’”

In 2014, after five solid months searching for a venue and a fire chief willing to host his first event, Gourley finally secured a location in Northwestern Idaho, then another in Colorado. After a few successful events, the festival’s popularity snowballed.

To this day, Lantern Fest sports a perfect safety record. In nearly five years of hosting events, there has never been a ground fire or a single burn reported. Depending on the number of attendees, anywhere from 75 to 500 fire extinguishers are kept on-site, in addition to support from local fire departments, just to be sure.

“Sometimes we’ll joke with the fire chiefs,” Gourley chuckles. “We’ll say, ‘Asia hasn’t burned down yet, and they do this all the time.’”

Highest Hopes, Deepest Regrets, Fondest Dreams

But the festival is much more than an excuse to light a fire. Attendees are encouraged to decorate and write on their lanterns. What they write, if anything, is completely their choice, though the Lantern Fest website recommends “... lighting the sky with our highest hopes, deepest regrets and fondest dreams.”

Early in the morning after the event, Gourley and his team head out to clean up the burned-out lanterns. Every so often, they get a chance to read a lantern or two.

“People write the sweetest things on the lanterns,” Gourley says. “Some people are there for a celebration. Some are mourning a loved one and saying goodbye, or hoping to get through a hard time. They really pour their hearts out. They’re kind of sending a prayer off into heaven.”

Hundreds of people have become engaged at the festival; a few have even married there. Plenty come to just hang out and watch. Whatever you’re there for, the lantern-lighting finale will not disappoint.

Gourley offers one piece of advice: “If I could make a recommendation, I would just tell everyone to put their cameras down for a moment during the launch of the lanterns. Just take it in and enjoy it.”

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