Enchanting animal lanterns at Woodland Park Zoo’s WildLanterns winter light show. Credit: Nancy Chaney
Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!
WildLanterns, Woodland Park Zoo’s enchanting winter light show, returns for a fourth year, lighting up our dark Seattle skies. The show opens Friday, Nov. 10, and the visually spectacular display makes for a memorable family outing.
WildLanterns light show
WildLanterns consists of more than 300 lanterns fashioned in the shapes of creatures from around the world and beyond! A host of new lanterns and some old favorites feature in the 2023 show.
The south section of the WildLanterns pathway is themed “Bugs and Blooms,” and features giant spiders, multi-colored flowers and an enormous bright blue scorpion.
The pathway at the north end of the zoo features lanterns in the theme of “Fantastic Folklore Realm.” An impressive white dragon looms large with other mythical creatures. Across from the dragon is the huge ice castle, which is sure to inspire more than one rendition of “Let It Go.”
The section called Giant Panda Parkway features lanterns in the shape of everyone’s favorite cuddly black and white bear.
Special WildLanterns nights
The zoo has added a few special nights this year to ensure that everyone is able to enjoy WildLanterns.
Sensory Friendly Nights will be held on Wednesday, Nov. 15, Wednesday, Dec. 6, and Thursday, Jan. 11. On these nights, the zoo’s indoor play area, Zoomazium, will transform into Zoomazium NightLights, a designated sensory-friendly space with dimmed lighting and gentle animal sounds in the background. Specialized discovery stations and closed captioning will also be available. On Sensory Friendly Nights, the music and sound effects on the carousel will be lowered.
The Holiday Senior Stroll welcomes seniors ages 65 and older with discounted tickets on a special night, Tuesday, Nov. 14, from 4–6 p.m. Alert the grandparents in your life if you know they’d like to experience the lanterns without the crowds and kids zipping around.
Scale — and detail — of the lanterns
Prior to our first visit to the debut year of WildLanterns, I saw the promo pictures but I don’t think I understood the scale of the lanterns. I can tell you now that many of these lanterns are huge. Most are at least as tall as an adult, and some are many, many times bigger. They’re made of fabric stretched over a frame, like a complex kite beautifully rendered in 3D. Some of the figures are even animated.
In a past show, for example, a striking peacock preened and an elephant gently flapped its ears. My favorite was the giant frog’s slow blink. Don’t miss looking closely at the animals’ beautiful and expressive eyes. What incredible attention to detail!
Look for interactive stations tucked in along the loop and in the north meadow by the carousel. There are lots of photo ops as well. Pose in front of the amazing ice castle or the beautiful cloud burst at the west entrance.
But we don’t want to spoil all of the surprises.
Cost of WildLanterns
Yikes! Tickets to WildLanterns cost considerably more than many other local holiday light shows. Adult and teen tickets (for ages 13 and older) cost $29.95–$36.95; children’s tickets (for ages 3–12) cost $25.95–$31.95. Prices vary by the date and time selected. Toddlers ages 2 and younger enter free. Zoo members receive a 20-percent discount.
At well over $100 for a family of four, this experience is a holiday splurge, for sure. But consider this: WildLanterns is a fundraiser for the zoo. You might feel better about those ticket prices knowing that the money goes toward the care and enrichment of your favorite animals.
Day or evening visit to the zoo?
Keep in mind that WildLanterns tickets do not get you into the zoo to see the animals during the day, and vice versa: Daytime zoo admission does not mean you can stay to see the lanterns after dark. Two separate admissions are required.
But if you had to choose between seeing the live animals by day or seeing the lanterns at night … well, actually you don’t have to choose. The lanterns look beautiful during the day, too! If you’re planning a daytime visit the zoo, you’ll still see the magical, colorful lanterns: they just won't be illuminated.
Tips for parents
Once you enter WildLanterns, you can stay as long as you like (plan for 1–2 hours). The event goes on rain or shine, so dress for the weather. We once visited on a rainy night, and the lights were actually even more beautiful with the reflections on the wet pavement.
Food kiosks are open for snacks, and the former Rainforest Pavilion got a remodel a couple of years ago and is now 1899 Grove.
I did notice that in parts of the loop between lantern installations, it was very dark. There are some colored uplights in the trees, but I wished there were some string lights along the path to better guide visitors. You might consider dressing the kids in something bright and distinctive so it’s easier to keep sight of them.
The zoo’s historic carousel is scheduled to be open during WildLanterns, as is the Zoomazium.
The bottom line
WildLanterns is a pricey outing for families, but one well worth experiencing if you can swing it. These super-sized animal lanterns are really special — you won’t see anything like them at any of the other local light shows.
Sipping hot chocolate and admiring the amazing lanterns feels positively festive. Put WildLanterns in your holiday-season plans.
If you go ...
When: WildLanterns opens Nov. 10, 2023, and runs through Jan. 14, 2024. The show is closed select Mondays, and also closed Nov. 23 (Thanksgiving Day) and Dec. 24–25. Daily open hours are 4–9 p.m. (last tickets sold at 7 p.m.). For the last two weeks of its run, WildLanterns will be open Thursday–Sunday and closed Monday–Wednesday.
Cost: Adults and teen tickets (for ages 13 and older) cost $29.95–$36.95; children’s tickets (for ages 3–12) cost $25.95–$31.95. Toddlers ages 2 and younger enter free. Zoo members receive a 20-percent discount. Book timed-entry tickets online.
Parking: Parking in zoo lots during WildLanterns costs $6. Free street parking can be found along Phinney Avenue North.
Snacks and more: Concession stands are open and you may also bring your own food. The ZooStore at the west entrance is open during WildLanterns.
More light shows: There are so many more de-light-ful lights shows around town. Check them all out in our guide to holiday light displays around Seattle and beyond.
Editor’s note: This review was first published in 2020, WildLanterns’ debut year, and was updated for 2023.