Christmas festivals at zoos have become huge holiday attractions. In the Midwest alone, at least eighteen zoos celebrate with holiday lights, carols, animal shows, and even ice skating rinks. Brookfield Zoo, Chicago’s oldest holiday zoo event, is celebrating its 40th year in 2021. But the very first zoo holiday lights event in the nation was Indianapolis Zoo’s Christmas at the Zoo, which dates back to 1967!
Many other zoos have hopped aboard the holiday festival train over the years. Here are a few highlights of eighteen Midwest zoo holiday lights events for 2021, listed by state:
Brookfield Zoo, Brookfield: Holiday Magic
- Be dazzled by over 2 million lights, including a 600-foot long “Tunnel of Lights”
- Walk through a 3-D 16-foot-tall gingerbread house
- Hunt for 25 gnomes in the Game of Gnomes scavenger hunt
- Enjoy zoo animals—both indoors and outdoors, including dolphin shows (extra fee)
- Ice skate on the rink (extra fee)
NOTE: Advance reservations required, with entry available in 15-minute increments.
Lincoln Park Zoo, Chicago: ZooLights
- Wind your way through a shimmering light maze
- Stroll through the fairy tale-like Enchanted Forest
- Hop on a carousel horse or take a train adventure
- Watch ice sculptors carve magical creations
- Be mesmerized by the light show set to holiday songs
NOTE: Some nights are free, others are $5. However, tickets are required, with entry available in 30-minute increments. Extra fee for special events.
Miller Park Zoo, Bloomington: Wild Lights at the Zoo
- Meander through the zoo lit up with hundreds of luminaries
- Have your face painted by the ZooLady
NOTE: The zoo will follow the CDC and State of Illinois Covid-19 requirements. Open December 3, 4, 10, and 11 from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. Call for tickets
Wild Lights at the Zoo details
Indianapolis Zoo, Indianapolis: Christmas at the Zoo
- Meet Santa or Mrs. Claus
- Surround yourself with dazzling lights in the Polar Pathway
- Ride the carousel or holiday train
- Meet a penguin or watch a dolphin show
- Hunt for mistletoe on a scavenger hunt
Note: Reservations are not longer required, but you can save time by buying tickets online
Sedgwick County Zoo, Wichita: Wild Lights
- Larger-than-life Asian lantern sculptures light the paths through the zoo
NOTE: Advance tickets required. Wild Lights runs through Sunday, December 5.
Topeka Zoo, Topeka: Zoo Lights
- Visit reindeer close up
- Explore the indoor wild jungle
- Walk under the shimmering rainbow tunnel
- Ooh and aah at the light show synchronized to music
- Check out the giant gingerbread men
NOTE: Advance tickets required, with entry available in 30-minute intervals
Detroit Zoo, Royal Oak: Wild Lights at the Detroit Zoo
- Be dazzled by millions of lights illuminating the front half of the zoo
- Enjoy the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibit
Note: Tickets must be purchased in advance. The event is completely outdoors, and there are no accessible animal habitats.
Wild Lights at the Detroit Zoo details
Potter Park Zoo, Lansing: Wonderland of Lights
- Listen to holiday music as you stroll through the zoo, twinkling in thousands of lights
- Goodie bags for children as you leave the zoo
Note: Reservations recommended
Saint Louis Zoo, Saint Louis: U.S. Bank Wild Lights
- Meander through dazzling lights displays, including six new for 2021
- Meet the animals at the Penguin & Puffin Coast and Insectarium
- Take a spin on the carousel
- Enjoy a film in the 4D Theater
- Listen to holiday carolers or meet Frozen princesses (specific dates)
Note: Advance tickets required, with entry available in 90-minute increments.
Red River Zoo, Fargo: Holiday Nights
- Ride the carousel
- Take in the festive decorations
- Warm up around a campfire while enjoying a s’more
- Slide down the hill on a sled
- Search for elves on a scavenger hunt
Akron Zoo, Akron: Wild Lights
- Twinkling lights synchronized to holiday music
- Lehner Family Foundation Wild Asia decorated for the holidays
- Visit with Santa or meet the Grinch, Snowman, Snow Princess or Snow Queen (specific dates)
- Stroll through a classic holiday town
Note: Masks required indoors (for all who are medically able to wear them)
Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden: PNC Festival of Lights
- Be bedazzled by 4 million twinkling lights throughout the zoo
- Search for Fiona fairy statues
- Ride the North Polar Express train
- Roast marshmallows for delicious s’mores
- Warm up in indoor animal settings
Note: No reservations required, but you can save by purchasing tickets online. Masks are strongly recommended in indoor settings.
PNC Festival of Lights details
Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, Cleveland: Wild Winter Lights
- Stroll through the zoo, bedecked in over a million dazzling lights
- Ride the carousel
- See model train displays and costumed characters
- Watch ice carvers turn a block of ice into a beautiful creation
- Both walk-through and drive-through nights available
Note: Tickets are limited, so advance online reservations are strongly recommended.
Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, Powell: Wildlights
- Be mesmerized by animated lights displays
- Ride the Polar Bear Express train, the 1914 Mangels-Illions Carousel, or a live camel (additional fees may apply)
- Warm up around a campfire and roast a giant marshmallow
- Take in “The Polar Express” 4D Experience
- Visit zoo animals, some indoors and some outdoors
Note: Wildlights is included with zoo admission. Reservations are strongly recommended.
Toledo Zoo & Aquarium, Toledo: Lights Before Christmas
- Stroll through the zoo, taking in over a million lights, including over 200 illuminated animal images
- Zip down the ice slide
- Take a spin on the indoor African Animal Carousel or ride the holiday train through Africa
- Admire the model railroad from the Swanton Model Train Railroad Club
Note: Extra charge for some activities. Reservations required.
Lights before Christmas details
Henry Vilas Zoo, Madison: Zoo Lights
- Meander among almost a million lights throughout the zoo
- Ride the carousel to your heart’s content (unlimited rides included in admission)
- Visit with Santa
Note: Advance ticket purchase required, with entry available in 30 minute increments.
Lincoln Park Zoo, Manitowoc: Lights in the Park
- Drive-through lights display
- One walk-through night: December 30
- Visit with Santa on select dates
Milwaukee County Zoo, Milwaukee: Wild Lights
- Stroll along a one-mile path of animal-themed lights displays
- Ride the North Shore Bank Safari or Penzeys Carousel (weather permitting)
- Bring your old holiday lights for recycling
If you go to a Midwest zoo holiday lights event
If you plan to attend a Midwest zoo holiday lights event, be sure to check the website of the zoo you plan to visit first. Due to Covid-19 restrictions, many of them offer a limited number of tickets and require advance reservations.
More Midwest holiday lights events
Some of our favorite Midwest holiday lights events, other than zoos, include the interactive Illumination at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, Illinois, and the drive-through Folepi’s Winter Wonderland in East Peoria, Illinois. What’s your favorite Midwest holiday lights event? Let us know in the Comments section below.
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