This is the eighth year that the National Zoo has held its walk-through ZooLights, and the event features mainstay animal frames outlined in lights along with a couple new attractions.

The display’s course runs along Olmsted Walk, between the Visitor Center near Connecticut Avenue and the Kids’ Farm near Rock Creek Parkway. The side trails (Asian, Elephant, American) are closed during ZooLights, but several animal houses remain open.

The 500,000 LED bulbs used to brighten trees and animal outlines make for steady entertainment along the walk. My kids (and seemingly everyone around us, and, okay, me too) can’t wait to spot the next animal along the walk (bald eagle! naked mole rat! anteater!) or point out some cool feature (lights that look like raindrops! trees with color-changing lights!) Fans of the zoo’s now-closed invertebrates exhibit will be glad to see that the corresponding display (octopus, nautilus, and so on) is not extinct.

We started at the Visitor Center near Connecticut Avenue to check out the dozens of sugary gingerbread habitats in the zoo’s annual contest, which features a panda theme this year. My boys also loved the Lego train display made from Legos, and the other two smaller train setups (don’t worry, fans of Thomas the Tank Engine, he’s here). We were also glad we stopped in the Visitor Center gift shop where there is a huge Lego reproduction of the Smithsonian Castle.

I think the only live animals we saw on our visit were the new American bison (across from the panda plaza food/gift shop). The zoo’s outdoor exhibits are not lit up, making it hard to see those animals. We had mild weather and weren’t looking to duck inside the animal houses for warmth, so instead really focused on the lights.

A new addition to this year’s event is a laser light show on the side of the elephant building. Similar to a cartoon projection but more like a crisp line drawing, the short tale of Frosty the Snowman was easy to see from the main path.

In between viewings there was a countdown clock showing when the next showing would begin (though if you didn’t know about the laser show in advance you might not be able to figure out what the clock is all about).

Other entertainment along the way includes two dancing tree displays (flashing trees set to music) and a performance stage for local acts.

Entrance to ZooLights is free, but parking and some attractions aren’t. The animal-themed carousel, a pair of giant inner tube slides, and a trackless train ride are each $3 per ticket (or 8 for $20).

The slides and train are down near the Kids’ Farm, and the carousel is not far away, near Lemur Island. Kids must be 36 inches tall to ride the tube slides.

While the 5 to 9PM event time makes sense, I always find it a challenge to make this outing work well when we factor in dinner and bedtime, since our house is 30 to 40 minutes from the zoo. This year we opted to eat at the zoo’s Mane Grill for dinner, but other years we’ve gone to Comet Ping Pong or Chipotle and pushed bedtime.

Tempting kettle corn, hot chocolate, and hot cider are among the treats for sale at a few points along the ZooLights walk.

The thrill of being at the zoo in the dark and the near-constant wow factor from the twinkling bulbs make ZooLights an exciting evening for families.

Additional Information

  • ZooLights is open from 5 to 9PM through Jan. 1 (except Dec. 24, 25, and 31). Entry is free, however parking is $10 for FONZ members and $20 for nonmembers.
  • Stop by the Think Tank indoor exhibit where Pepco gives away free glow sticks.
  • If you drive, plan to get there at the start of the event to make sure you get a spot in your desired lot. Spaces were scarce the night we attended.
  • Brochures for ZooLights are available at info spots throughout the zoo. They include a map of all the highlights. However, since the displays are all along the main Olmsted Walk, this isn’t a case where the brochure is necessary to enjoy the evening.
  • The giant hill layout of the zoo means one uphill climb and one downhill coast. Be prepared for that mountainous, whine-filled walk. Strollers can be a lifesaver.
  • FONZ (Friends of the National Zoo) members can take advantage of a members-only lounge in the Elephant Community Center building on Saturday nights.
  • A free shuttle bus runs from the Woodley Park-Zoo/Adams Morgan Metro (red line) to the zoo on Saturday nights.

Photos by Kathleen Seiler Neary.

Photo of author

OK Editorial Team

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