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Ten things to do During Zoo Lights at the Smithsonian National Zoo

Welcome to ZooLights an event at the National Zoo in Washington DC all throughout December.


Ten things to do During Zoo Lights at the Smithsonian National Zoo

For a month out of the year the National Zoo is open until 9pm, hooray! And not only is it open, but they’ve decked the heck out of their halls! If you’ve never seen Christmas lights made to look like a naked mole rat, then you clearly need to get to Zoo Lights. The event goes through January, but is closed the 24th and 25th of December. I recommend you bundle up and make a thermos of hot cocoa (officially I can’t condone the preparation of hot toddies for the parents, you do you). Here’s what you can expect.

Never have I ever seen Christmas lights designed like a naked mole rat. On display at ZooLights in Washington DC's National Zoo.

Never have I ever seen Christmas lights designed like a naked mole rat.


There are three rides this year! Tickets can be bought onsite for $3/ride. The ticket stand is on the Rock Creek Park entrance side between the train and tube rides. You may also purchase a value pack ($20) which includes 8 tickets, good for any ride. The value pack may also be purchased online, here

1.Ride the Smithsonian’s National Choo Choo Train

This cozy four car trackless train takes families around the big cat exhibit. One family (about 4 people) fits per car, which is nice.

2. Tube Down Lion and Tiger Hill

The tubing has been at the zoo since Halloween. It looks like so much fun! I say looks like fun because my wee one is always asleep when we’re near it and I don’t think a sleeping baby wants to wake up halfway through a tube slide.

3. Pick a unique seat on the Conservation Carousel

With unusual seating options; cuttlefish, armadillo and ostrich, it’s hard to say no to a ride.  This ride is a little dangerous for us, usually ending in a big tantrum when I have to pry my toddler away.

Zoo Lights at the National Zoo in Washington DC.

Photo from:

Animal Exhibits 

During night events the Zoo opts to keep some animal houses open. For animals that are nocturnal this is a great chance to see them in action. 

4. Ohh and Ahh at the Small Mammal House

This is the house cuteness, seriously. The small mammals are totally adorable and if you come during the day you can see one up close for a keeper talk. For which they take the animal out of the cage to let kids get a closer look.

5. Feel Thankful at the Reptile Discovery Center

Alligators, snakes and turtles! I title this feel thankful because living in the Mid-Atlantic we’re not exposed to the array of squirm inducing reptiles in this center. Don’t get me wrong this house is fascinating, but I would not want to meet anyone from this house without a piece of glass between us. Except maybe the giant tortoises.

6. Test Your Smarts at the Think Tank

Test your wits against an Orangutan in this interactive exhibit. If the apes are in the mood you might even get to play tug-of-war with one. The exhibit is deigned to create ape/human interaction.

7. Get Exclusive at the Elephant House

Now would be a good time to become a member of the FONZ (Friends of the National Zoo). Their members only event at the Elephant House will take place December 10th from 5:30-7:30pm. That evening will include a visit from the Washington Capitals, their mascot Slapshot and the Red Rockers cheerleaders!

The halls are decked! Zoo lights at the National Zoo in Washington DC.

I want these lights!


If it hasn’t become apparent yet, I love to eat. *In full disclosure I don’t recommend eating zoo food as it’s solidly, meh. I recommend eating before your zoo trip. There’s plenty of restaurants on Connecticut Ave or in Adams Morgan (the Rock Creek entrance side)* Although, you can toast marshmallows during Zoo Lights and I can get into that. 

8. Toast Marshmallows

By the Connecticut Ave entrance of the zoo look for a sign for Marshmallow toasting. For a city-living  apartment dweller like me an outdoor fire is totally delightful!

CuttleUp to these lights! Zoo Lights at the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington DC.

How cute and cuttly!

Hide from the Cold in the Visitors Center 

I’ve been to the zoo twice a week for six months. And I only, finally, entered the visitors center because I was cold. It’s really nice, you should check it out, especially during ZooLights. 

9. Thomas The Tank Engine 

In the theater of the visitors center is a miniature train set. Front and center is every toddlers favorite train, Thomas. We watched my daughter watching Thomas for over half and hour but had to leave when she tried to climb in and get a closer look.

Thomas the Train speeds by during Zoo Lights at the National Zoo.

Thomas! Its Thomas the Tank engine!

10. Judge the Gin-GRR-Bread Houses

Ok, so you don’t actually have any say in the winner, buuut you can still ogle at these beauties. Every year the zoo has a ginger bread house competition (next year I’ll be on my A game and will enter). This year’s theme was “Safari in the Snow” and the houses were decorated accordingly, check out this red nosed cheetah below! There are multiple categories; Family Team, Adult Team and Adult Solo. The winner gets a tour of the Cheetah Conservation Station.

The Red Nose Cheetah, an entry in the GinGrr Bread House competition at ZooLights.

This is a gingerbread house!

Bonus: Shop for Giftssss

The victors center is the beginning of the many gift stores throughout the zoo. This might be the perfect place to do some holiday shopping. They have animal inspired jewelry and handbags as well as rubber snakes, like the one seen below, and oversized plushies.

Buy unusual gifts during ZooLights.

My little snake charmer!



  • If you’re able go on a weekday. The weekend lines are 25-30 minutes long for rides and beer.
  • Oh yah, they serve alcohol during the event.
  • Bring small bills to pay for the ride.
  • Park along Connecticut Ave to avoid the $20/car fee
  • Members of the FONZ (Friends of the National Zoo) are privy to cool perks like free parking and ride tickets, join here.

Getting There

3001 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20008

Woodley Park Metro station (red line)

They have parking ($20/car)




  1. tianna29

    March 8, 2017 at 3:57 pm

    “For which they take the animal out of the cage to let kids get a closer look”
    I don’t agree. Read that

    • Tina

      March 8, 2017 at 7:19 pm

      I wasn’t familiar with that blog, so thanks for sharing.

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