While I can’t really say I’m a fan of the cold that comes along with winter in Ohio, I love all things Christmas and am willing to deal with whatever Mother Nature gives us when the holiday season rolls around. Since so many holiday themed activities are best at night when those beautiful light displays are glittering in the dark and are usually outside for said light displays, I usually just suck it up, bundle up in my warmest outerwear and grab a hot chocolate or coffee to keep me warm. Columbus Zoo has been on my list of holiday fun for a while and we finally made it there!
Wildlights is held at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium every year and every year it seems to get more spectacular. With over 3 million lights and all of the wonderful things this zoo has to offer, this is an activity to put on your holiday bucket list if you live within decent driving distance.
While Zoolights itself isn’t actually an “event” and is more an extension of regular zoo hours, the cost is the same whether you are attending for the day or just for the Wildlights. of My recommendation: if you can, get there early. The zoo is open every day of the year except Thanksgiving and Christmas and opens in November and December at 10 am. By getting there early, not only will you get prime parking(its the little things), but it will also give you a chance to look around without the crowds. We were there around 3 and there were probably only about 5 other people that we saw. It gave us a chance to look around and see what was going on and grab a bite to eat before it got busy.
Keep in mind that it is winter so some of the animal exhibits you are used to seeing may not be open. You can check the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium website for more information. The biggest complaint I heard while at Wildlights was that some people were unaware that not all of the animals would be out. But keep in mind that some of the animals are warm climate animals and will never be out during the winter, but also that by keeping the zoo open later, and with lights and music, it could disrupt sleeping patterns of the animals so there are valid reasons that you are not able to see your favorites.
Ok so what is there is to do?? Well there’s a lot! Some of the attractions are free and included in the price of admission and others are extra but regardless of which you choose, there’s a lot going on! Grab a brochure when you arrive or check out the attractions page to get an idea of what you’d like to see or do. If you want to attend many of the extra cost items, I would recommend getting the Zoo-It-All band for $9.99. For Wildlights, this includes the Polar Bear Express, 4-D Theater, the Carousel, the Holiday Skate Rink and Camel Rides. And you can do each activity as often as you like with the wristband so this definitely comes out to be a bargain. We did all except the Camel Rides and it definitely saved us some money. The free attractions are great too so even if you decide to just stick with those, there’s plenty to see!
Holiday Rhythms Around the Watering Hole was probably one of our favorite passive things to do while here. Conservation Lake is lit up beautifully and the lights dance to the sounds of Christmas music. The shows are every 15 minutes, so its an easy show to catch while just strolling along.
Tinseltown, which is located inside Asia Quest, is a fun attraction featuring pop culture characters from all of your favorite Christmas shows from when you were a kid. Kinda cheesy, but just enough so that we loved it. Plus its an escape from the cold if you need it!
The 4-D theater in Shores Park plays Rudolph the Red-Nose Reindeer during Wildlights. I personally love 4-D so for me, this was pretty fun. Its a 15 minute show that features clips of the Christmas special and has the effects of wind, smells and snow all in 4-D fashion. The show costs $5 for non-members and $4 for members or if you have the Zoo-It-All band, its included. Another fun way to escape the cold!
G has a love for ice skating so we were pretty excited to try out the Holiday Skate Rink located in Winter Park at the front of the Zoo. The rink itself is pretty small and its made from synthetic ice or Glice to be more specific so its definitely not a high quality rink. We only had to share the rink with two other people while we were there, so the size wasn’t an issue. Its a fun add-on but I would only recommend doing it if you bring your own skates or have the Zoo-It-All band. Otherwise its $5 for non-members and $4 for members for skate rentals. The rink is cute and lit up, but we only spent about 20 minutes total there so I don’t think it would’ve been worth the $8 for the skate rental for the two of us in that short period of time. The idea is nice, but the rink is just difficult to skate on.
If you’re familiar with the Columbus Zoo at all, you know they have a small train that boards in North America. They have this deemed the Polar Bear Express during Wildlights and the train basically just takes you through more lighted areas, some of which can only be seen from the train. Its cute and costs $1 if you don’t have the band but I wouldn’t recommend this if its extremely cold. It wasn’t too bad when we went, but the wind from the ride can definitely pick up more than you’d think.
Up for the chance to win some prizes from the Zoo? You can do this by playing the Do You Want to Build a Snowman Seek-N-Find game in Habitat Hollow in North America. Its presented by Disney and is basically a walk through “My House” with different Disney themed snowmen that you need to match to their princess. Very simple and quick and might give your kids a break from the cold if needed. After matching up the princesses, you can enter to win prizes. Easy!
The Carousel is beautiful as always and I love the history behind it. Its another great way to escape the cold, plus with the Christmas Music and the view of the lights from inside makes it a little more magical! This will cost you $1 or is included with the band.
Wanna meet Santa? Head over to Jungle Jack’s Landing to Santaland Zoo, where you can see Santa’s Zoo made from Gingerbread. This is probably more suitable for younger kids, but its inside so its also a great way to warm up! They offer a small bakery of goodies here as well if you need to grab something sweet.
While in Jungle Jack’s Landing, check out the Sparkling Spruce. Shows start every 20 mins and the 42 foot LED tree features beautiful light displays set to music. It another one of those passive displays that you can stop and watch or casually walk by and still enjoy.
The Zoo also features a Character Christmas Show that is held three times per night that features Animal Characters on Safari Stage near the entrance of the Zoo. We were unable to see this because Jack Hanna was filming his Into the Wildlights special for TV, which was exciting enough!
The other two things we didn’t attend were the Oak Ridge Bears Jingle Jamboree and as I previously stated, we didn’t do the Camel Rides. But both are available if they sound like something you’d enjoy!
This can be expensive depending on your family size. Prices can be found here. Parking also costs $10. It may make more sense for your family to get the zoo membership, even if you only go one other time of the year. Members get free parking and discounts to other zoos throughout the country.
The Zoo offers special goodies throughout during Wildlights. Our favorite was the refillable cocoa mug. We got 2 mugs which cost $15 for 2 and were able to get free refills of either cocoa or coffee for the night. With $1.99 refills for the rest of the season, it works out to be a pretty good deal. They also have cookies and special popcorn treats available as well.
Bundle up! The majority of the sites are outside. You don’t want to have to leave early because you’re too cold. Luckily, they also have fires set up throughout the zoo to help us warm up when we started to get a bit too chilly.
Come early! We notice that as the night goes on, it gets more crowded. We arrived at 3 and left by 8:30 and were able to see and do everything we wanted, including eating while there. The Zoo stays open until 10 p.m for Wildlights though, so if you can’t make it until later, you will still have plenty of time.
If you need your coffee fix while there, you can grab Starbucks at Village Coffee in the front of the Zoo and at Yukon Coffee Cart in the Polar Frontier. You can find the menu of what else the Zoo offers here.