Giant swans greet visitors at the entrance to Woodland Park Zoo's new WildLanterns winter light show. Credit: JiaYing Grygiel
Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!
The zoo left its usual WildLights display in storage this year (it had been running the past 8 seasons) and rented this new animal lantern exhibit. Not coronavirus-related — the planning for WildLanterns began last year, long before social distancing was a thing we had to worry about.
WildLanterns consists of more than 300 lanterns in the shapes of creatures from the Northwest, the jungle, the sea and the savanna. To see the show, you’ll enter at the zoo’s west entrance (by the penguins) and follow a one-way path along the zoo’s main loop.
Before visiting, it was hard to determine the scale of the lanterns from the promo pictures. Now I can tell you, 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 3-D. Some of the figures are even animated. A striking peacock preens at the west entrance, the elephant gently flaps 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 surprises tucked in along the loop. Play an oversized piano in the African village, and skip on light-up stepping stars near the south entrance. The best activities are across from the (closed) Willawong station. You can dance in a swirl of psychedelic colors in a mirrored, pentagon-shaped room.
There’s a photo op with a giant pair of wings for your Insta-worthy selfie. And who doesn’t love a bubble-blower and fog machine?
Cost of WildLanterns
Yikes! Tickets to WildLanterns cost nearly double what WildLights were. Adults and teen tickets (for ages 13 and older) cost $28.95; children's tickets (for ages 3–12) cost $23.95. Toddlers ages 2 and younger enter free. Zoo members receive a 20-percent discount. Parking in zoo lots costs $4.
At over $100 for a family of four, that’s a lot to swallow. But consider this: WildLanterns is a fundraiser for the zoo. During the four months the zoo was completely closed, the animals still had to eat and the keepers still had to take care of them. You might feel a little better about those ticket prices knowing that the money goes to animal care.
Note that WildLanterns tickets do not get you in to see the animals during the day, and vice versa. For WildLanterns, you’re not there to see the live thing. We saw a bat in the adaptations building and smelled the flamingos, that’s it. But if you had to choose between seeing the animals or seeing the lanterns… well, actually you don’t have to choose. The lanterns look beautiful during the day too! If you’re planning a day trip to see the animals, you’ll see big colorful sculptures, just not lit up. (Read about a daytime visit to the zoo here.)
You must buy a timed-entry ticket, online in advance, to see WildLanterns. That’s for crowd control; the event is open at 25 percent capacity to allow for social distancing. Everyone ages 5 and older is required to wear a face mask. Snowball fights in the Zoomazium and nighttime rides on the carousel — features of the previous WildLights experience — are closed this year.
Parents should know
Once you enter, you can stay as long as you want (plan for 1–2 hours). The event goes on rain or shine, so dress for the weather. We visited on a rainy night, and the lights were actually even more beautiful with the reflections on the wet pavement.
The restrooms are open (that’s important!). Strollers are not available for rent, so bring your own if you need it. Food kiosks are open, or you are welcome to bring your own snacks. The former Rainforest Pavillion got a remodel earlier this year and is now reopened as 1899 Grove.
I did notice that in parts of the loop between lantern installations, it got very, very dark. There are some colored uplights in the trees, but I wished there were some string lights along the path to better guide us. Dress the kids in something really bright and distinctive so it’s harder to lose them.
The bottom line
WildLanterns is a splurge for sure, but one worth making if you can swing it. We’re just so excited that there is something open that’s fun and outdoors — and unique. (Enchant, Lumaze and Garden d’Lights are all canceled this year. Understandable, but it's still a bummer.)
These super-sized animal lanterns are really special, something you won’t see at any other event. The zoo is taking a wait-and-see approach as to whether WildLanterns will be back next year. Don’t take your chances, see it this year.
As my boys and I sipped hot chocolate by the fire pit, admiring the amazing lanterns, it felt positively freaking festive. It’s going to be hard to top WildLanterns this holiday season.
If you go...
When: WildLanterns opens Friday, Nov. 13, and runs through Jan. 17, 2021. The show is closed Mondays, and also closed on Thanksgiving Day (Nov. 26), and Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, Dec. 24 and 25. Open hours are 4–8:30 p.m.
Cost: Adults and teen tickets (for ages 13 and older) cost $28.95; children's tickets (for ages 3–12) cost $23.95. Toddlers ages 2 and younger enter free. Zoo members receive a 20-percent discount. Book timed-entry tickets online.
Parking: Parking in zoo lots costs $4. 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. You need to consume your snacks in designated areas. The ZooStore at the west entrance is open during WildLanterns.
Face coverings: Masks are required for all guests ages 5 and older and strongly recommended for kids ages 3–4. Masks may only be removed when eating in designated areas.
More light shows: While some holiday lights shows are canceled for 2020, several are soldiering on. Read about more holiday light displays around Seattle, the Eastside and South Sound, including some drive-through shows, open this year.