While cold weather-loving critters — like snowy white polar bears, waddling penguins, and Santa’s reindeer — are most often associated with the holidays, you’ll find everything from a tree of flamingos to a pollinator’s paradise at these fantastic holiday zoo light experiences from coast to coast.
Note: So as not to suggest any favorites, this list is presented in a follow-the-sun order from the east to the west.
1. Philadelphia Zoo
With 14 zones of displays and more than a million lights, LumiNature 2021 is the biggest event yet for the Philadelphia Zoo. Think pink in flamingo fancy, stalk through the jungle like a big cat, waddle through the Arctic Passage with penguins, and dive into the sea and “swim” among ultraviolet coral reefs. Keep warm with plenty of hot food and beverage options, including hot chocolate with a nip. LumiNature begins in mid-November and runs each evening through January 9.
Pro Tip: TravelAwaits readers voted these zoos the best in the US.
2. Riverbanks Zoo & Garden In Columbia, South Carolina
Lights Before Christmas is the longest-running holiday tradition in South Carolina’s capital city. Wind your way through paths illuminated by holiday lights and whimsical animals, watch lights dance across an enormous Christmas tree in time to seasonal music, and warm up by roasting marshmallows for s’mores. Lights Before Christmas begins the weekend before Thanksgiving and runs through December 30.
3. Detroit Zoo
Up north, where Canada lies just across the Detroit River, the front half of the Detroit Zoo is transformed into a winter wonderland with millions of LED lights illuminating trees, buildings, and sculptures. But this holiday zoo light extravaganza is more than sparkling snowflakes and glittering giraffes. The Detroit Zoo’s Ford Education Center has once again been selected to kick off the North American leg of this year’s Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition. Developed and produced by London’s Natural History Museum, your admission to Wild Lights includes this chance to view awe-inspiring photography from the world’s largest and most prestigious wildlife photography competition. WildLights at the Detroit Zoo begins November 20 and runs for 40 nights through January 9.
4. Toledo Zoo & Aquarium In Toledo, Ohio
With more than one million lights adding their sparkle to the award-winning Big Tree and more than 200 animal sculptures, the Toledo Zoo & Aquarium Lights Before Christmas is a holiday experience you won’t want to miss. You can also watch ice carving demonstrations, ride the Holly Jolly Express through the zoo’s Africa exhibit, and race down the ice slide. Lights Before Christmas runs from November 19 through December 31.
Pro Tip: Here are six other reasons to visit Toledo, Ohio.
5. Cincinnati Zoo
While many zoological parks end daytime visiting hours a little early to prepare for their zoo lights event that evening, Festival of Lights is included with a daytime ticket to the Cincinnati Zoo. So visit the animals in the afternoon and stay for the holiday lights once the sun goes down. And what an impressive light display it is! While many of the zoo light displays on this list include around one million lights, the Cincinnati Zoo’s Festival of Lights features a staggering 4 million LED lights. Saunter through the rainbow tunnel, enjoy seasonal music as lights dance across Swan Lake, and admire life-size animal sculptures and lanterns. Munch on freshly roasted nuts, sip hot chocolate, and roast marshmallows for s’mores at stations located throughout the zoo. Festival of Lights takes place from November 19 through January 9.
Fun Fact: 2021 marks the 39th year that the Cincinnati Zoo has celebrated the Festival of Lights, making it one of the longest-running zoo light displays on this list.
6. Lincoln Park Zoo In Chicago
The Windy City is home to one of the best Bavarian-style Christmas markets in the U.S., as well as one of the most impressive zoo light displays. Bundle up, grab an adult beverage from the holiday pop-up bar, and bask in the glow of more than a million brilliant lights at the Lincoln Park Zoo as festive music fills the air. This year’s light show is powered by the green, renewable power of energy-saving LEDs and wind energy. ZooLights at the Lincoln Park Zoo begins just before Thanksgiving and runs through January 2.
Pro Tip: In addition to gorgeous holiday lights, the Lincoln Park Zoo offers one of the best views of Downtown Chicago.
7. St. Louis Zoo
In America’s heartland, Wild Lights at the St. Louis Zoo includes a twinkling tunnel, candy crossing a frozen forest, a glowing garden, and many other dazzling displays. Keep warm by rubbing your gloved hands over a fire pit or roasting marshmallows from your s’mores kit. And pair illuminated penguins with the real deal by popping into the Penguin & Puffin Coast display when you visit. Wild Lights at the St. Louis Zoo begins the day after Thanksgiving and runs through December 30.
Pro Tip: While admission to the St. Louis Zoo is typically free, tickets are required to visit Wild Lights. But free event parking is available in the north and south lots.
8. Memphis Zoo
Take in thousands of festive lights at the Memphis Zoo — at eye level by strolling the paths, at a faster pace by riding the free tram, or with a bird’s-eye view from the Ferris wheel. Be serenaded by the singing Christmas tree, warm up with hot chocolate, or take a few spins around the ice skating rink. Zoo Lights at the Memphis Zoo begins in mid-November and runs through January 1.
9. Lincoln Children’s Zoo In Lincoln, Nebraska
In the shadow of the top zoos in the world, the Lincoln Children’s Zoo shines during the holidays. Wander under an illuminated tree canopy, through a 60-foot-long light tunnel, and past more than 30 animal sculptures at one of the largest zoo light displays in the Midwest. Zoo Lights at the Lincoln Children’s Zoo is open from the day after Thanksgiving through December 30, and all proceeds support the zoo and its animals during the winter months.
10. Houston Zoo
While the zoo animals are tucked in for the night, enjoy a spectacular holiday light display that includes the 125-foot-long Infinity Tunnel of Light and a 33-foot, color-changing Christmas tree. Visitors can “swim” through a glowing underwater adventure, complete with illuminated jellyfish and other sea creatures, and stroll under a canopy of flickering flowers and brilliant butterflies in the hanging pollinator garden. And if that’s not impressive enough, you can even experience “snow” in South Texas! Zoo Lights at the Houston Zoo is open from mid-November through January 9.
Pro Tip: Furthering its commitment to protecting wild animals, the Houston Zoo offers a holiday light recycling program. Since launching the program in 2016, the zoo has recycled more than 24,000 pounds of old and broken lights — the approximate weight of two adult male Asian elephants!
11. Denver Zoo
While some holiday zoo light displays are limited to just a small portion of the park, two million LED lights twinkle across more than 80 acres at the Denver Zoo. And while many zoo light experiences don’t include animal viewing, cold weather-loving critters (like the Amur tiger) are on display and the Tropical Discovery building (with fish, frogs, snakes, and sloths) is open during Zoo Lights. In addition to the Champagne Toast, Watering Hole, and Blue Lagoon light exhibits, don’t miss nightly ice carving demonstrations by local artists! Zoo Lights at the Denver Zoo begins November 22 and runs through January 2.
Pro Tip: The Denver Zoo is offering a special low-sensory version of Zoo Lights on December 31 for visitors who might feel overwhelmed by the typical Zoo Lights experience.
12. Phoenix Zoo
Let millions of lights that dance across the main lake, illuminate impressive animal sculptures, and otherwise twinkle in the desert night dazzle you at the Phoenix Zoo. When you purchase your tickets, you can select a walk-through or cruise-through experience as the zoo alternates between pedestrian-only and drive-through options. ZooLights at the Phoenix Zoo begins November 24 and runs through mid-January.
13. The Living Desert Zoo In Palm Desert, California
Located in the small Coachella Valley town of Palm Desert, The Living Desert Zoo was recognized by USA Today in 2019 as one of the best zoo light extravaganzas in the nation. For nearly 3 decades, the desert destination has been transformed into a winter wonderland, complete with a herd of life-size animal lanterns, illuminated paths, and a tunnel of lights blinking in time to holiday music. WildLights at The Living Desert Zoo runs from November 23 through December 30.
14. Oregon Zoo In Portland, Oregon
In a city known for its Winter Light Festival and Christmas Ships Parade, you can be sure that the zoological park joins the seasonal festivities. Under the glow of more than 1.5 million lights, walk through a rainbow tunnel, wander through the Glowing Grove, and admire more than 200 animated animals swinging through trees, grazing on the lawn, and diving into the sea. ZooLights at the Oregon Zoo in Portland is open daily from November 19 to January 9, with the exception of Christmas Day, and you can cruise past the exhibits in your car on select nights.
Pro Tip: If you opt for a drive-through Zoo Lights experience, preorder select snacks, including hot cocoa, kettle corn, elephant ears, and cotton candy, when you purchase your tickets.
15. Woodland Park Zoo In Seattle, Washington
While most of the holiday extravaganzas on this list are focused on light displays, the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle emphasizes lanterns. Gaze at a wide range of large-scale animal and natural-scape lanterns representing wild creatures and rugged places from around the world. You can still get your fill of Christmas lights by strolling through the Discovery Loop, where hundreds of thousands of lights add their glow to trees and other structures. WildLanterns at the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle is open from November 12 through January 30.