Is anyone else feeling overwhelmed by the amount of things to do in Orlando during the holidays? I have found a solution. The Asian Lantern Festival at the Central Florida Zoo is relaxing, and it lasts until January 16, 2022, giving you plenty of time to check out this beautiful nighttime experience.
Just like any holiday event in Central Florida, there's a right way to experience the Asian Lantern Festival, and then there's a better way. Read on for tips to have the best date night possible at the Central Florida Zoo Asian Lantern Festival 2021.
When To Go to the Asian Lantern Festival
If you are like my husband and me, you're pretty much booked through the month of December. This festival is really a celebration of the new year, so it runs through January 16, 2022. I recently visited by myself, but I am going to book tickets for myself and my husband to go together in January. This way I am not cramming another event into the busy holiday season and have something to look forward to once the holidays wind down.
If you want to go in December, I recommend getting tickets sooner than later. Like all holiday events in Central Florida, the closer you get to Christmas Day the busier it will be.
When you book your tickets you select a timeslot. I selected the 8:00 pm arrival time, which allowed me to enjoy the festival until 10:00 pm. When I first arrived it was very busy, so I hung back and relaxed in an Adirondack chair near the splash pad (which was turned off so guests could enjoy the aquatic-themed lanterns in this area).
After about 8:20 pm the crowds had gotten ahead of me, so I was able to enjoy the lanterns without as many people around. There was hardly anyone in sight by the time 9:15 pm rolled around and I was about halfway through the lantern pathway. Selecting this last timeslot of the night seems to be a good strategy for couples who want to have less kids and less people overall around them. You'll just need to let the initial crowd get ahead of you for about 15-20 minutes.
How To Get Around
When you arrive to the Asian Lantern Festival you will park in the free parking lot. It is dirt and grass, and the zoo itself is mostly a wooden boardwalk so I would recommend comfortable shoes, closed-toe if possible. There is a very long walkway leading to the actual gate. The long walkway is lined with lanterns, getting you in the mood for a beautiful evening before you even walk through the gate.
You'll need your ticket either saved to your phone or printed to be scanned for entry. Once inside you'll be directed to head to the left walkway where you'll meet some aquatic themed lanterns. This where the main snack bars are located. I stopped here and grabbed some cheese fries and a drink. This is a nice spot to relax, take in the views, and let the crowds get ahead.
The lantern walkway winds through the entire zoo, though some of the smaller walkways in the center of the zoo are blocked off and not part of the festival. Crowd flow is managed by making the lantern walkway one-way. Because it is one-way it is tempting to keep walking and keep going. I highly recommend slowing down so you can appreciate the details.
Once you enter the walkways with lanterns overhead you'll be reaching the halfway point of the festival. In fact, the large orange and red dragon lantern is just about the exact halfway point. Once you reach the gorilla lanterns and large panda display you're essentially at the end.
I asked to go back over to the aquatic lanterns near the front because it was so crowded at the beginning. The friendly staff member obliged and I decided since it was still well before 10:00pm I had time to go back through the entire walkway one more time. If you decide to do the same please be respectful of the staff and make sure you get to the exit well before 10:00pm.
What to Eat At The Asian Lantern Festival
The Central Florida Zoo is located near downtown Sanford. It would be tough to pass up all the wonderful date night spots in Sanford, so consider making a full night of it.
If you decide to have something to eat at the Asian Lantern Festival there are plenty of concession spots along the festival walkway, some of which serve Asian-inspired bites. The new dining location, Graze is open during the festival, usually until at least 9:00 pm each night, although it varies depending on the crowds.
Do not miss the build-your-own S'mores station at Swirl. This snack stand is near the enchanted garden and peacock lantern displays. The S'mores kits are basic with two graham crackers, a square of Hershey's chocolate bar, and two marshmallows and a stick to roast the marshmallows. Each kit is $5.
The firepits for roasting the marshmallows made for a romantic atmosphere. There are some picnic tables and you can see some of the lanterns from this spot. This is a great stop for a little romantic break before walking through the final displays of the festival.
Don't Miss the Details
During my visit to the 2021 Asian Lantern Festival at the Central Florida Zoo I witnessed so many families rushing through the experience. Most of the couples I witnessed, however, knew to take their time.
One thing that surprised me about the laterns is how many of them have motion. I was expecting static displays of lights. Instead, most of the lanterns feature movement, some as simple as a winking eye or a moving mouth, while other lanterns feature full movement. So take a moment and pause at each display to make sure you don't miss a thing.
There are also many displays that have overhead elements so make sure to look up. There is also relaxing Asian music played throughout the entire festival walkway. The calm tones put me at ease. Once I let the crowd get ahead of me this felt so different than the countless Christmas light displays in Orlando.
How To Get Tickets
The Central Florida Zoo Asian Lantern Festival is a separate ticketed event. Regular admission to the zoo during the day does not apply to this special event. The festival takes place on most nights, but not every night, and runs through January 16, 2022.
When purchasing your ticket you'll select a timeslot to enter and enjoy the festival. If you are an annual passholder for the Central Florida Zoo you do receive a discount on most nights, and need to purchase your festival tickets through a special link.
Please review Central Florida Zoo's website and direct any questions directly to the staff of the zoo. Consider bringing along a light sweater, or just cozy up together and enjoy this beautiful evening.
All images by Dani Meyering