Zoo lights: The US’s most dazzling displays

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Illuminate your holiday season with America’s most enchanting zoo lights. From the Midwest’s winter wonderlands to the West’s glowing gardens, here’s your guide to the most magical menageries from coast to coast.

A group of people strolling through the Detroit Zoo aglow with festive zoo lights.
Photo credit: Detroit Zoo.

Making the most of your zoo lights visit

Here are some insider tips to ensure your visit is as dazzling as the displays.

  • Dress for success: Even if you’re in a warmer climate, temperatures can drop when the sun goes down. 
  • Ticket talk: Most zoo light events require a special ticket, separate from regular zoo admission.
  • Membership has its privileges: If you’re a zoo member, be sure to ask about discounts. 
  • Festive treats: Some zoos offer seasonal treats like hot chocolate and s’mores, so bring some cash or a card for these little indulgences.
  • Sensory sensitivity: For a more subdued environment, look for sensory-friendly nights with toned-down music and lighting.
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Zoo lights in the Midwest

The Midwest knows how to do winter right, including its zoo lights. Here’s where the heartland is glowing with holiday spirit.

ZooLights at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago

Set against impressive views of the city, Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo offers a festive ZooLights experience filled with impressive light displays, holiday music, and plenty of hot beverages to help you stay warm in the Windy City.

Festival of Lights at the Cincinnati Zoo

The Cincinnati Zoo transforms into a “Wild Wonderland” for its annual Festival of Lights. The event features four million LED lights, blacklight puppet shows and a spectacular Wild Lights show on Swan Lake.

WildLights at the Detroit Zoo

During WildLights, the Detroit Zoo transforms into an Arctic haven, decked with millions of LED lights adorning trees, buildings and sculptures. Your admission to WildLights also grants you access to the prestigious Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition.

Christmas at the Zoo in Indianapolis

Beginning in 1967, the Indianapolis Zoo was the first in the nation to hold a holiday lights event. Their Christmas at the Zoo holiday celebration includes Santa’s Village, a penguin encounter and a glittering tunnel known as the Polar Pathway.

Wild Lights at the St. Louis Zoo

The St. Louis Zoo’s Wild Lights event typically takes place from late November to late December. The event features more than one million colorful lights including a twinkling tunnel, a glowing garden and many other dazzling displays.

A group of people standing around a campfire roasting marshmallows at the Denver Zoo holiday event.
Photo credit: Denver Zoo.

Zoo lights in the Northeast

The Northeast brings a unique blend of tradition and innovation to its zoo lights displays. 

Holiday Lights at the Bronx Zoo

The Bronx Zoo’s Holiday Lights event offers a dazzling display of lights, animal lanterns, and an animated light show that transforms the zoo into an impressive holiday spectacle. 

LumiNature at the Philadelphia Zoo

With 14 zones of displays and more than a million lights, LumiNature at the Philadelphia Zoo encourages guests to waddle through the Arctic Passage with penguins and so much more. Keep warm with plenty of hot food and beverage options, including hot chocolate with a nip.

Zoo Lights at the Pittsburgh Zoo & Aquarium

The Pittsburgh Zoo & Aquarium offers a Zoo Lights drive-thru experience where you can cozy up in your car and drive through thousands of environmentally-friendly lights. The 45-minute experience features over 100 animal lights, festive music and holiday treats.

ZooLights at the Stone Zoo in Stoneham, MA

About 20 minutes north of downtown Boston, ZooLights at the Stone Zoo transforms the park into a 26-acre frosty paradise with tree-lined paths lit by thousands of twinkling lights and other festive decorations.

“I love to take my family to zoo lights every year. It’s a relaxing way for us to spend time exploring the zoo in a new way that makes it magical all over again. It’s always less crowded and somehow less stressful and less rushed, and we all need that in the holiday season.”

— Michelle Price, Honest and Truly
A vibrant array of lights at the Riverbanks Zoo in South Carolina.
Photo credit: Discover South Carolina.

Zoo lights in the South

Who says you need snow to enjoy the holiday season? The South brings the heat with its zoo lights displays, making for a warm and wondrous experience.

IllumiNights at the Atlanta Zoo

IllumiNights at Zoo Atlanta offers a winter wonderland filled with millions of LED lights. The event features a variety of themed areas, including a magical tunnel and a holiday light show set to music. It’s a spectacle that brings the holiday spirit to life in the heart of Georgia. 

Lights Before Christmas at the Riverbanks Zoo & Garden in Columbia, SC

Lights Before Christmas is the longest-running holiday tradition in South Carolina’s capital city. Help celebrate the season by winding your way through illuminated paths, watching lights dance across an enormous tree in time to seasonal music, and then warm up by roasting marshmallows for s’mores.

Zoo Lights at the Memphis Zoo

Experience the Memphis Zoo’s Zoo Lights in three unique ways: stroll the illuminated paths, ride past on the free tram or take in aerial views from the Ferris wheel. Enjoy the melodies of the singing Christmas tree and the seasonal fun of ice skating and hot chocolate.

Luminaria Nights at the San Antonio Zoo

Create lasting memories at San Antonio Zoo’s Luminaria Nights as you wander through acres of twinkling wildlife trails filled with exciting surprises. Glide through a mesmerizing 124-foot light tunnel, spend time with Santa, and join in the holiday sing-a-long express.

Zoo lights in the West

The West is where the wild things are, especially when it comes to zoo lights.

Zoo Lights at the Denver Zoo

The Denver Zoo goes all out with two million LED lights spread across a sprawling 80 acres. Unlike many holiday light experiences that have tucked the animals in for the night, its Zoo Lights allows you to catch a glimpse of cold-weather animals like the Amur tiger.

ZooLights at the Phoenix Zoo

During ZooLights, the Phoenix Zoo is illuminated by a radiant display of millions of lights that dance across the main lake, light up intricate animal sculptures, and twinkle in the desert night. The zoo alternates between pedestrian-only and drive-through nights, allowing you to choose your own adventure.

ZooLights at the Oregon Zoo in Portland

In a city known for its Christmas Ships Parade, the Oregon Zoo’s ZooLights doesn’t disappoint. Under the glimmer of 1.5 million lights, stroll through a rainbow tunnel, marvel at more than 200 animated animals, and more. The zoo even offers a drive-through experience on select nights.

WildLanterns at Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle

Step into a world of themed lanterns at Seattle’s WildLanterns. From polar regions to a bamboo forest filled with iconic Chinese species, the zoo offers an immersive, interactive experience. Highlights include giant illuminated birds, bugs and blooms, as well as mythical creatures like Pegasus.

Light up your holidays

No matter where you are in the U.S., a zoo lights display is waiting to make your holiday season truly magical. Don’t miss out on these glowing experiences that bring joy to all ages.

Sage Scott was bitten by the travel bug as a preschooler when her family moved abroad for the first time. Now settled in America’s Heartland, Sage is a travel writer, world wanderer and photographer whose favorite color is golden hour. Follow her adventures at Everyday Wanderer.

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