"Look at all the lights!" exclaimed my 3-year-old son as we walked towards the beckoning, brilliant lights of Woodland Park Zoo's WildLights. We'd seen them sparkling in the distance while driving up, and our excitement increased as we approached the gates, following the lights and the sounds of Christmas carols.
It was the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, and we were checking out the zoo's first-ever winter lights festival on an early members-only night. Between the stormy weather and proximity to Thanksgiving, it was less crowded than we expected, though still buzzing with excitement.
But the fun really started when we entered the zoo and could focus on the individual light displays. "It's a tiger!" "Is that a bear?" "Elephants, and they're moving!" "There's singing!" (as we saw strolling carolers in Victorian garb). And the inevitable "Mama, I want to go on the carousel!"
What exactly is WildLights? I didn't really understand it before I saw it — perhaps because I'm a newbie to mammoth light shows — and I still have a bit of a tough time explaining it. In numbers, it's 375,000 LED lights strung up throughout the western and northern ends of the zoo (the LED piece makes the whole event quite energy efficient). They are "sculpted," hung on wire frames, to depict wild animals and places: a leaping tiger; a luminous replica of the Aurora Borealis, with animated bears, moose and wolves surrounding it; elephants moving towards a watering hole on the African savanna (a personal favorite of mine, ingenious).
But the description doesn't do justice to the magic of the experience, which has something to do with keeping the darkest part of the year at bay with thousands of lights and fantastical scenes; with seeing the so-familiar zoo transformed into a sparkling night version of itself; and, for me, with the festiveness of being out at night in the dark with a 3-year-old (let's just say it was not our typical Tuesday night).
There is much to do besides gawk at lights. The historic carousel is open, and feels even more fun than normal, with the effect of the lights multiplied in the mirrors around the carousel. There are two well-groomed reindeer you can visit (although no petting, unfortunately). The Zoomazium is open as the Snowmazium, with snow-themed stories and activities and fabric snowballs available for snowball fights (watch out!). On Fridays, an ice sculptor will be working his craft, and more entertainment is planned as the season gets underway.
To escape the chill be sure to step into the warmth of the indoor Day Exhibit, which houses reptiles and amphibians, including a huge python, turtles and a crocodile or two. Surprisingly, this turned out to be one of our favorite WildLights activities that night; somehow, in our usual quest for gorillas and elephants, we had missed the quieter attractions of the cold-blooded set.
Photo credit for top two photos: Ryan Hawk/Woodland Park zoo
If you go ...
When: WildLights runs November 23–January 1, from 5:30–8:30pm each night (closed on December 24 and 25). Enter through the West entrance; the south entrance isn't open.
Tickets: $6.50–$9.50 (ages 2 and under free). Buy online at zoo.org/wildlights or at the West entrance on the night you wish to go.
Parking: Parking in the zoo lots will be free Monday to Thursday evenings. From Friday to Sunday evenings, parking will be $5.25 but may be limited. Consider taking the bus, biking, walking or carpooling.
Eats: The Rain Forest Pavilion and concession stands will be open. Two good kid-friendly restaurants a few blocks north of the zoo are Phinney Market Pub & Eatery (train table on site) and Zeek's Pizza.
More lights: See our round-up of great holiday light displays around the Sound.