Sometimes change is good. Regular zoogoers held their breaths when Woodland Park Zoo swapped its classic holiday strings of lights for brilliantly illuminated lanterns in 2020. After attending WildLanterns for the fourth year in a row, I can honestly say it keeps getting better and better. Here’s a sneak peek at what you have to look forward to this year.
All new lanterns
When I think about dream jobs, being the zoo employee who gets to choose new lanterns every year is pretty high on the list. Yep, you read that right: The lanterns and interactive areas are brand new every year!
WildLanterns always greets us with a “wow” factor — guests starting at the West entrance will marvel at stunning rain clouds with beaded “rain,” while visitors entering from the South can run through a floral tangerine dream tunnel.
Save a copy of the map to guide you through the displays. Don’t miss the sparkly spider webs in the Insect Labyrinth (also known as the Discovery Loop, which usually hosts an outdoor play space) or the giant panda parkway lined with cherry blossoms.
Interactive zones and entertainment
It wouldn’t be a family visit to WildLanterns without a lengthy stop in the interactive zones (marked by a star on the map linked above). Our favorite interactive surprises along the walk included a fog-stuffed bubble machine near the pandas and an incredible ice dragon that spews blue flames, but the main area is located near the snow leopard exhibit.
Long-time WildLanterns attendees will notice that this year’s central play area includes returning favorites. Illuminated teeter totters make a comeback in 2023, as does a spectacular mirrored room with slightly different lighting effects.
Kids who want to sample all the activities will have plenty from which to choose. Stomp along a path of colorfully lit towers or follow the stars around a brilliant peacock before playing a whack-a-mole-style game mounted on a panda lantern.
We’re excited to report that the carousel and Zoomazium will reopen as indoor spaces to warm up and have fun.
All the lights and noise of this epic event can be wildly overstimulating to some families. The zoo offers three sensory-friendly nights (December 6 and January 11).
In addition to less bright lights and music at a lower volume, Zoomazium will transform into NightLights with shadow puppet activities and smaller tents to make the experience cozier.
As with any winter outdoor excursion, a little advance planning goes a long way. Pack your best rain gear, mittens and a thermos of hot cocoa because WildLanterns is fun, rain or shine. It’s just under 2 miles to walk through the entire path in a figure-eight shape, so you’ll also want your favorite baby carrier, stroller or wagon for little ones.
For the second consecutive year, the zoo has implemented Disney-style peak pricing. I’m not thrilled about it, but it does raise a little more money for animal care during the most popular time slots (around holiday breaks). Book in advance and save money by using your member discount and avoiding peak times if it fits your family’s schedule.
There are so many wonderful holiday events returning this year and it’s impossible to get to all of them, but WildLanterns always earns a spot on our holiday calendar.
WildLanterns: know before you go
Find it: Guests who purchase tickets in advance can enter WildLanterns at the South (750 N. 50th Street) or West (5500 Phinney Ave. N) entrance. Use the West entrance if you need to purchase a ticket onsite.
Timing: Open November 10-January 14 from 4-9 p.m. (last entry at 7 p.m.). WildLanterns is closed most Mondays, Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.
Cost: Zoo admission does not include WildLanterns. Timed tickets are recommended and can be purchased online. Members receive a 20% discount when logged in. Members of BECU can also purchase discount tickets. Due to peak pricing, expect to pay more on weekends and during holiday breaks. Adult tickets range from $29.95 to $36.95, while youth tickets (ages 3-12) range from $25.95 to $31.95. Children 2 and under are free but still require a ticket.
Parking: Evening parking in the zoo lots costs $6 (plus taxes and fees) starting at 3:30 p.m. Street parking is available in surrounding neighborhoods.
Food: Concessions are available at the zoo and guests can bring outside food to enjoy in designated eating areas. Neighborhood restaurants like Windy City Pie and Red Mill Burgers are nearby and offer a more leisurely eating experience.