The holidays are a time for decorative lights. Just about everyone enjoys a done up display featuring multicolored LEDs, maybe some inflatable figurines like a Frosty the Snowman or Santa’s Sleigh, and the occasional giant candy cane. Owing to the COVID-19 pandemic, celebrating the holidays is quite different compared to years past. Fortunately, a well-designed holiday light display is just as effective viewed from the safe confines of your car. That got us to thinking about the best places to enjoy a decorative holiday light tour. In most major cities, residents and visitors will find local zoos tend to roll out special displays this time of year. Zoo lights are great because they combine two things we really enjoy: holiday lights and the zoo! In this article, we’re taking a look at some major zoos around the country and bringing you the best holiday light shows we could find. In no particular order, these are the best zoo lights in December.
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Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Gardens
Woodland Park Zoo, Seattle
Home to a historic German-American community, Cincinnati is a great cultural destination. The Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Gardens are located in Northern Cincinnati. Each year they put on a spectacular holiday light display as part of their Festival of Lights. This year, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, reservations are required and the Festival of Lights is included with your standard entrance ticket. The festival runs from now until January 3, 2021, and features over 4 million LED lights all carefully arranged in an array of visual displays. Besides just admiring the lights, visitors can also take a ride on the North Polar Express train, attend the Wild Lights show on the zoo’s very own lake, or enjoy some delicious seasonal snacks. During the Festival of Lights, the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Gardens will open at 1:00 p.m. and close at 9:00 p.m. Of course, the best time to see the lights is after dark, which in Cincinnati comes not long after sunset and well in advanced of 6:00 p.m. It is recommended that visitors try to make reservations at least two weeks in advance of when they want to visit given the popularity of the Festival of Lights. Reservations maybe be made online at the Cincinnati Zoo website and visitors can elect to drive themselves or arrive via public transportation.
There’s much more to Dallas than just the Cowboys. This is very much a happening city filled with lots of commercial, enterprise, and artistic activity. From smoked barbecue and authentic Mexican feasts, Dallas is a major cultural center with lots to offer tourists and vacationers. The Dallas Zoo is located south of Downtown along I-35E. This year, the Dallas Zoo Lights feature a self-driving route so you can maintain appropriate physical distancing in the safety and comfort of your own vehicle. The Dallas Zoo Lights feature more than a million lights arranged in elaborate displays that include plenty of silk-covered animal lanterns. Adults and kids alike will enjoy the creative way the lanterns feature their favorite animals in eye-catching displays. The Dallas Zoo Lights runs from now until January 9, 2021. In order to prevent overcrowding, visitor numbers are limited and guests must book timed entry tickets in advanced. Tickets are provided on a first come, first served basis. To avoid missing out, you should book well in advance of your planned visit. This year the cost is $65 per car for non-members or $50 per car for zoo members. The Dallas Zoo Lights are open to the public every day except Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.
Our next stop takes us to the Pacific Northwest and lovely Portland, Oregon. This is a fantastic city with loads of great things to do. Whether it’s hiking in the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area or just enjoying Portland’s recreational bike trails, the Northwest is a place for nature-lovers. Add to it Portland’s many pubs, restaurants, and coffee houses and you’ve got the perfect recipe for a dynamic place to visit. The Oregon Zoo is located along US-26 just west of Downtown and Goose Hollow. They say it wouldn’t be the holidays in Portland without ZooLights and we tend to agree. In fact, that’s all the more true this year when we’re craving a bit of normalcy. Every day between now and January 10, 2021, except for Christmas Day, visitors can enjoy the dazzling displays comprising over 1.5 million lights from the relative safety and warmth of their cars. From Parking Lot B, the new ZooLights route winds around the grounds and back to the exit on US-26. Reservations are required and tickets are available on the Oregon Zoo website. The entrance fee varies from $50 to $65 per car depending on the day. Visitors are required to wear masks during check-in when they arrive. Zoo staff have done their best to make sure visitors see many of the same lights they would have in a normal year so don’t worry you’re going to get a suboptimal experience.
Visitors to Indianapolis should have no trouble finding the Indianapolis Zoo given its prime location along the White River just opposite Downtown. Enjoy the historic city center and the lively areas around the Soldiers & Sailors Monument and nearby Massachusetts Avenue. If the weather cooperates, be sure to enjoy the trails along the river. Greenspace redevelopment projects have created a network of paths extending along both banks. Make your way to the Indianapolis Zoo with plenty of time to see the exhibits before dark. The Indianapolis Zoo’s annual Christmas at the Zoo holiday event is one of the oldest in the nation. Included in the regular price of admission, the zoo maintains extra hours this time of year in order to give visitors the opportunity to visit Santa, see Mrs. Claus’ Kitchen, Santa’s Barn, the Tunnel of Lights, and the always popular Penguin Encounter. Reservations are required and are free for zoo members. Tickets for the general public vary between $25.50 for adults and $19.50 for kids aged 12 and under. Discounts are available for seniors, active duty military, and veterans. Christmas at the Zoo runs through December 30 and is open every day except for Christmas Eve and Day and New Year’s Eve and Day. If you plan to visit Indianapolis or happen to live in the area, make sure you enjoy Christmas at the Zoo this year.
The rich rolling hills in New England are something all to themselves. There’s an aura here found nowhere else in the United States. Town squares are dotted with plaques to Revolutionary War history and the whole place can seem very much unchanged from 250 years ago. Fortunately, Boston is no stodgy New England town. There you’ll find a host of fantastic historical and cultural attractions, including Zoo New England. Zoo New England is actually two zoos, the Franklin Park Zoo in Boston proper and Stone Zoo in nearby Stoneham, Massachusetts. The latter is where you can enjoy the spectacular ZooLights experience. Located less than 30 minutes from Downtown Boston, Stone Zoo is relatively easy to access as part of a self-driving tour. Always popular, you should be sure to book tickets now for a visit just after New Year’s. Time slots prior to that are mostly booked; however, you might contact zoo staff to see if you can get in on standby. After you arrive, enjoy a one-way stroll along the many tree-lines paths all sparking with their many lights. Since you’re at the zoo after all, make sure to visit Yukon Creek where you’ll find black bears, a bald eagle, artic foxes, and even real live reindeer. Individuals tickets are $13.95 for non-members and members can save a dollar.
First-time visitors to New York City can easily lose themselves in the glass and steel, the frenetic pace of a city rushing towards the next big thing. Even seasoned New Yorkers find it a maddeningly complex place to navigate. Yet this is precisely why New York City is arguably the greatest city in the world. This year if you’re visiting during the holidays, take a trek up to the Bronx and visit the Bronx Zoo. At the zoo’s annual Holiday Lights festival you can enjoy a “global safari in lights.” Come see illuminated lanterns depicting animals from around the world. Spread through the park, each display focuses on a different geographic region including Africa, Latin America, and the oceans. You can also enjoy entertaining performances by stilt-walkers doing amazing dances in animal-themed costumes. Holiday Lights at the Bronx Zoo also features ice carving competitions, a wildlife theatre, and of course festive holiday snacks. Advanced reservations are required and tickets start at $34.95 for non-members or $22.95 for kids aged 3 to 12. Holiday Lights, which is only open on select days and will depend on local conditions and prevailing health regulations, runs until January 10, 2020. Make the Bronx Zoo part of your New York City holiday and enjoy Holiday Lights.
The Motor City might not initially spring to mind when you consider holiday destinations; however, the city’s transformation in recent years has been remarkable. As a cultural melting pot, Detroit’s culinary scene is an eclectic mix of Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, South Asian, and Central American cuisine all rolled into one. New and exciting music is on offer every night in the city’s youthful Corktown District, which is gaining a regional reputation as a place for artists and young people to come discover themselves. The Detroit Zoo is a bit removed from Downtown and located alongside I-696 at Woodward Avenue. This year, you can once again enjoy the wonder and magic on display at Wild Lights. Experience the awe at seeing nearly 5 million LED lights strung up everywhere from trees to buildings to purpose-built sculptures. Space is limited in order to prevent overcrowding. Guest numbers are capped at a maximum 1,150 allowed in the park at any given time. Reserve your tickets in advance so you don’t miss out. Wild Lights will run on select weeknights and Sundays from 5:00 – 9:00 p.m. and Fridays and Saturdays from 5:00 – 10:30 p.m. Masks are required for all guests and ticket prices range from $15 to $20. Children under 2 are admitted free of charge.
The home of Starbucks and the Space Needle has always had a sense of style. With a temperate climate and the hip vibes characterizing the Pacific Northwest, Seattle is a city that exudes cool. Once you visit you will see why people fall in love with the culture, the art scene, and the opportunity. Woodland Park Zoo is located in the Phinney Ridge neighborhood and has garnered numerous awards over the years. It functions very much as a beacon in the community. Speaking of beacons, at WildLanterns, the Woodland Park Zoo’s holiday festival, you can stroll past beautiful animal-themed lanterns grouped together in different thematic displays. See creatures familiar to the Pacific Northwest such as grizzly bears and be amazed by exotic animals more at home in jungles, on mountain tops, and deep under water. It’s a fun and excitement-filled way to spend an evening. Tickets are limited in order to allow for adequate health control measures. Visitors must wear masks and observe normal safety and hygiene protocols. Reservations should be made in advance in order to secure access. At the time of writing, December tickets were quite scarce; however, there are still openings for January. WildLanterns will run through January 17, 2021, and tickets start a $28.95 for adults or $23.95 for children aged 3-12.
We finish our tour of zoo lights in the Mile High City. Denver is a downright fantastic place for a holiday vacation given its proximity to great wintertime recreation. Some of the world’s best skiing communities are a short drive into the Rocky Mountains. In Denver proper, you’ll find plenty of arts and entertainment to round out your holiday visit. For those planning to be in the area this December and January, pay a visit to the Denver Zoo. Easily accessible from Downtown, the Denver Zoo is celebrating the 30th anniversary of its annual Zoo Lights festival. Come see the zoo’s many paths and walkways all decorated with myriad colors and fun displays. Zoo Lights runs through January 9, 2021, and tickets are in high demand. Don’t wait to grab yours before they’re all gone. Supplies are limited and many dates in December are already sold out. The Denver Zoo is normally a popular place and that’s all the more true during Zoo Lights. This year, tickets range in price from $15 to $25 with all ages welcome to visit. The festival starts each night at 5:00 p.m. and closes at 10:00 p.m. If you’re in the mood to spice up your New Year, make sure to start it off right with a visit to the Zoo Lights 30th Anniversary celebration at the Denver Zoo.
Don't lose focus on what matters and don’t let 2020 end on a down note for you. Although this year has been hard on everyone, there is still plenty of joy and delight to experience this holiday season. Combining lovely holiday light displays with top-notch zoos and wildlife parks is a winning proposition in our estimation. The 9 locations we’ve profiled are great places to enjoy zoo lights this December and January. Make sure to book your tickets in advance. Also be sure to follow all relevant health and safety precautions. It’s more important now than ever to find meaning in the holidays, but we still have to all do our part so we can put the pandemic behind us and enjoy brighter things in 2021.