ZooLights — powered by Pepco — is bigger and brighter than ever this season. Join the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in celebrating the holidays with its annual free lights festival. The Zoo will be illuminated for 37 nights — from Nov. 23 through Jan. 1, 2019 (except Dec. 24, 25 and 31) from 5 to 9 p.m. Over half-a-million brightly colored environmentally friendly LED lights and animal-shaped displays will transform the Zoo’s trees, walkways and buildings into a dynamic and colorful winter wonderland.
New this year, visitors can follow the twinkling lights down the pathway to the Elephant Outpost to the Zoo’s new Gingerbread Village, a magical land of frosted cookies and lollipops, giant gingerbread people cut-outs and a gingerbread throne perfect for friend-and-family photos. In addition to “sweet” photos, the Elephant Outpost will include food and holiday shopping as well as a performance stage with live music on select nights by local school groups.
Families can pause outside the Elephant Community Center to see a dazzling laser-light show, board the Smithsonian’s National Zoo Choo-Choo, sponsored by Metro by T-Mobile, for a journey around the Kids’ Farm or ride a favorite zoo animal on the Speedwell Foundation Conservation Carousel. Tickets are $3 per person for the train and $3.50 per person for the carousel. Each night of ZooLights will also feature a live music or dance performance in the Great Meadow by local community or school groups beneath a new interactive light canopy that responds to music creating a unique sound and light show.
At the new “Reindeer Games Fun Zone,” sponsored by Geico, on Lion-Tiger Hill, visitors can zip down giant inflatable slides, try a holiday-themed obstacle course and twirl on illuminated rides. Tickets are $3 per person for each attraction; eight-ride punch cards valid for all rides/attractions will be for sale for $20 each (about a $26 value); $15 for members.
Visitors will be able to munch special winter treats, including gingerbread, kettle corn, fresh donuts, holiday cookies, candy canes, soft pretzels and special holiday gelato. Kids can stay warm by sipping hot chocolate or spiced cider while adults enjoy holiday beverages, including eggnog, mulled wine and coffee. A selection of seasonal spirits, such as peppermint schnapps, Kahlua and Fireball, will be available at a bar inside the Visitor Center for adults to add holiday cheer to their beverage of choice. The recently completed Conservation Pavilion Patio will feature six fire pits where visitors can roast s’mores or grab a ‘glowing’ cotton candy served atop an illuminated stick.
ZooLights is hosting its second-annual GRUMP holiday market — a European-style outdoor market featuring the work of local artisans. In 2018, GRUMP will double in size, featuring more vendors with unique gifts for all ages, from handmade clothing and accessories to artwork, handcrafted toys and sweet treats. GRUMP will be located at the Zoo’s Connecticut Avenue entrance Dec. 7, 8 and 9 from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Holiday shoppers can support the Zoo’s mission to save species by purchasing the perfect animal-themed gift at any of the Zoo’s gift shops.
Online orders will be taken through Dec. 16 for “Adopt a Species” packages for sloths, pandas, tigers, orangutans, Komodo dragons and other species — including the opportunity to add a private meet-a-keeper tour. Animal lovers can also help their favorite creatures stay physically and mentally active by donating to the Enrichment Trunk to help buy toys for the Zoo’s animals.
Admission to ZooLights is free. A flat-rate parking fee of $15 for Friends of the National Zoo (FONZ) members and $25 for nonmembers will apply. During Member Week, Dec. 2 through Dec. 9, FONZ members will receive a full week of free parking at ZooLights, a free gift and a punch card to enjoy eight free rides/attractions and BOGO popcorn when they present their membership card and photo ID. Like they do all year, proceeds from ZooLights concessions and parking sales will benefit animal care and conservation science at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute. The festival will also feature a ticketed microbrew and craft beer event, BrewLights, Nov. 29.
Note that ZooLights does not feature the Zoo’s animals. All indoor animal exhibits will be closed to allow animals to get a full night’s rest. Visitors will be able to warm up indoors in the Zoo’s Visitor Center, Panda Plaza Gift Shop, Mane Grill and Great Cats Gift Shop.
Parking is available on a first-come, first-served basis; the Zoo recommends visitors arrive early or take public transportation. Both Metro Bus and Metro Rail have stops within walking distance of the Zoo. A nonstop Circulator Bus will operate between Woodley Park Metro Station and the Zoo’s entrance Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. Metro Rail riders can look for the larger-than-life-sized ZooLights giant pandas located at stations throughout the Washington area. While equidistant from both Metro Rail stops, the walk is uphill from the Woodley Park-Adams Morgan/Zoo stop and flat from the Cleveland Park stop. Big Bus Tours will provide a continuous free shuttle service from the Woodley Park-Adams Morgan/Zoo Metro stop to the Zoo on Saturday evenings during ZooLights. For more information about ZooLights, including a complete list of nightly performances, tickets for BrewLights and a list of GRUMP holiday market vendors, visit the Zoo’s website.
Photo: Jim Jenkins, Smithsonian's National Zoo