Seattle's Child

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Everybody loves the new butterfly tree at this year's WildLanterns event at Woodland Park Zoo. (Photos by Natasha Dillinger)

Parent review: Woodland Park Zoo’s new WildLanterns Festival

Here's what you'll find at one of Seattle's beloved outdoor holiday attractions.

Update, Nov. 2021: Ticket information for WildLanterns 2021.

Our family has visited WildLights, the Woodland Park Zoo’s traditional holiday lights event, since the year my oldest was born. It’s a favorite tradition in part because it opens earlier than other similar events, which makes it a perfect option for kids who are normally nestled all snug in their beds by 7 p.m.

Last year, the zoo debuted a new WildLanterns Festival featuring large-scale brightly illuminated lanterns inspired by nature.

As we’ve returned to the zoo during the pandemic to scout out the new COVID safety protocols (check out this parent’s review), we’ve loved seeing progress on the WildLanterns set-up, and anticipation was high when we visited. Would it live up to our expectations (and the increase in cost)? A docent on a recent daytime trip told us that the zoo had started planning this event pre-pandemic, but the timing couldn’t be better for families hungry for a lower-risk holiday outing.

Swap old traditions for new fun

While we missed the snowball fight in Zoomazium and sipping hot cocoa on our way to ride the Historic Carousel, following the one-way figure-eight-shaped path felt a bit like taking a nighttime safari or scuba-diving. An extended walking route allows for better social distancing than in prior years and easier viewing of the newly leased lanterns.

My robot-obsessed 4-year-old loved spotting playful pandas on see-saws and elephants that wiggled their giant ears. The giant angler fish in Seamazium lured me in, while our toddler preferred the colossal red octopus.

Make time to play

My highly scientific study (OK, an informal poll of the #WildLanterns hashtag) shows that the interactive display stations are a huge hit!

Near the African Savanna area, kids can stomp on stars at the base of a tree or practice their scales on a light-up piano. Adjacent to Willawong Station, show off the dance moves you honed in quarantine in a mirrored pentagon with flashing lights. You can also pose for a photo opp between wings and a halo, although I can’t guarantee this will get you on Santa’s nice list.

Gear up for a Pacific Northwest evening

Remember to dress warmly in layers since your single entry will prevent you from running back to the car for extra hats and gloves. We appreciated having a backpack carrier so that our toddler could see the lights and avoid darting around other families, although one advantage to the large-scale lanterns is that kids in strollers will have no trouble seeing the action.

Know before you go

  • If you go early, WildLanterns has a different look while the sun is still out.

    Timing: WildLanterns runs 4 to 8:30 p.m. most days through Jan. 30, 2022. Exceptions: It will be closed most Mondays (but open Dec. 20 and 27) and also closed Dec. 24-25.

  • We booked the opening time slot and while the lanterns were more striking as we left at dark, we avoided crowds and were able to spend more time at the fun interactive spaces.
  • Tickets: Advance purchased tickets for reserved time slots (arrive within the hour) are required. Admission from a daytime visit does not include WildLanterns entry. You might experience a bit of sticker shock at the cost, which is nearly double prior years. We splurged because the zoo has experienced intense financial pressure to care for its animals in a year with much lower revenues, so this felt like an accessible fundraiser. Adults (13+) are $28.95, Youth (ages 3–12) are $23.95 and toddlers 2 and under are free. Members receive a 20% discount.
  • COVID-19 protocols: In addition to the timed entry and reduced capacity, masks are required for attendees over 5 years old and strongly recommended for kids ages 3-5 (most families we saw had face coverings for their young ones). Guests must follow a one-way trail starting at the West Gate entrance (similar to a daytime visit).
  • Food: As in prior years, families can grab food from kiosks throughout the zoo or bring their own. However, eating has to take place in designated areas. You can also support other local businesses by showing your ticket at the following restaurants for a 10% discount: Ada’s, Modern Japanese Cuisine, The Park Public House, The Whit’s End, Windy City Pie, and Zeeks Pizza.

Photo by @kingcountymama2020

Other holiday lights celebrations:

Point Defiance ZooLights: Tacoma; runs 5–9 p.m. from Nov. 27-Jan. 3, 2021; Seattle’s Child preview here

Fantasy Lights at Spanaway Park (drive-thru event): Spanaway; runs 5:30-9 p.m. from Nov. 21-Jan. 3, 2021

The Light of Christmas: A Drive-Thru Christmas – Stanwood; runs 5–10 p.m. on select dates from Nov 27-Dec 30, 2020

Published Nov. 18, 2020

About the Author

Natasha Dillinger

Natasha Dillinger is a Seattle mom who paused a career in accounting and finance to focus on showing her two young children around the Pacific Northwest. Follow their adventures near and far on Instagram @suitcasesinseattle