The PNC Festival of Lights at the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden will turn on its lights tonight for the 40th year, celebrating the holiday season with families and animals. Each evening during the holidays, the zoo is transformed into a “Wild Wonderland,” as four million LED lights brighten the zoo and our holiday spirits.
Our family has attended the Cincinnati Zoo Festival of Lights every year for more than two decades. To say it is a family holiday tradition is an understatement. Even though our children are now adults, they look forward to the event with excitement.
We still have photos of the kids with Santa from twenty years ago. It is a fantastic experience where you step away from life’s stress, laugh together, and make memories. We cover everything you need to know about the Cincinnati Zoo Festival of Lights.
Dates for the PNC Festival of Lights
The festival runs from November 18, 2022 – January 8, 2023.
Festival of Lights Admission
Your general zoo admission includes entry to the Cincinnati Zoo Festival of Lights. You can visit the zoo early and stay for the lights.
Animals and Lights
Animals, regularly in outdoor exhibits, may stay inside due to winter temperatures. You can observe animals at indoor exhibits.
For most outdoor exhibits, the animals have access but typically remain inside, beyond our view, to stay warm. To improve your odds of animal sightings in the outdoor areas, arrive during daytime hours. Animals typically move indoors for warmth by 5:00.
Many visitors long to see the new baby hippo, Fritz. It must be 40 degrees Fahrenheit or warmer for Fritz to be outside.
Remember, the festival is about the lights! Observe what animals you can, but revel in the festive holiday lights and music.
Cincinnati Zoo Hours During the Holiday Season
- Sunday through Thursday: 10:00 am to 9:00 pm
- Friday and Saturday: 10:00 am to 10:00 pm
*Note that activities for the PNC Festival of Lights begin at 4:00 pm.
Cincinnati Zoo Holiday Closures
The zoo is closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, and Christmas.
Opening Night Tree Lighting Ceremony
Celebrate opening night, November 18, with the Lachey Arts Performance at 5:50, followed by the tree lighting ceremony at 6:15. Feel the electricity in the crowd at the joyous tree lighting ceremony, setting the tone for a beautiful holiday season.
Visit with Santa
You can visit with jolly old Saint Nick in Santa’s Village each evening starting at 4:00 from November 18 – December 23. Be sure to tell Santa what you want for Christmas.
Happy Zoo Year
The Cincinnati Zoo offers a special event for kids, “party animals” of all ages, to ring in the New Year. Happy Zoo Year takes place at the zoo on December 31, 8:00 pm. It will be a kid-friendly early countdown the whole family can enjoy.
What is New This Year?
The Festival of Lights has a few new offerings this year.
The Grinch will be angrily pacing around the zoo for the first time. Do not worry; not even the Grinch can dampen your holiday spirit. You can find him in Zoo-Ville near the Elephant Reserve exhibit.
Fiona the Nutcracker
As you prepare to ascend the escalator from the parking lot to the entrance, you will be welcomed by a unique 29-foot-tall Fiona nutcracker. You can spot several “Easter eggs” within her details with some detective work.
I do not want to spoil all the hidden clues, but I will give you one and point you in the general direction for two others. Fritz, her baby brother, is painted on her toenail.
Please take a closer look at her belt. I will leave the rest for you to figure out. Have fun on your Easter egg hunt.
Vine Street Village Welcome Tree
Marvel at the new 40-foot-tall welcome tree in Vine Street Village, a hub for holiday characters and activity.
This year, you can find Santa and Mrs. Claus together at the Picnic Shelters. Santa’s North Pole Village houses Santa’s Sleigh, a hot chocolate stand, and Gingerbread Village. Did I mention photo ops? You can get your picture taken with Santa, Mrs. Claus, and Santa’s Sleigh.
The animal lanterns are back, but new members have joined the lineup:
- Rico, the Brazilian porcupine
The zoo delivers a few pedestrian tunnels with lights. No matter your age, walking through the lighted tunnels will draw an ear-to-ear smile.
A new lighted tunnel guides your way to Santa’s Village. The Rainbow Tunnel has moved to Giraffe Ridge.
Hot Hippo Purple Hot Chocolate Drink
Try the new Hot Hippo purple hot chocolate drink. You can purchase the purple drink in a souvenir mug at Candy Cane Cottage, Canopy Canteen, Coffee & Graeter’s Ice Cream, and the Hippo Hut.
Things To Do
Vine Street Village Tree
Various holiday characters roam around the beautifully decorated Christmas tree. You can have your photo taken with a holiday character.
Huddle around an open fire with your family, roasting marshmallows and eating s’mores. It is shaping up to be a great evening!
Visit the new Zoo-Ville area and keep your eyes peeled for the Grinch.
Swan Lake Wild Lights Show
Watch a fabulous light show perfectly timed to music on the tranquil Swan Lake.
Set out on a treasure hunt in Fiona’s Fairyland. Search high and low to discover all five Fiona fairies. One is gold.
The Festival of Lights honors more than Christmas. See the alluring menorah display and celebrate Hanukkah.
North Polar Express Train
Ride the North Polar Express Train around the zoo and through a brilliant tunnel of lights. Train rides start at 2:30, and extra charges apply to non-members.
Stop by the zoo’s heart-warming nativity scene to heighten your holiday spirit.
Candy Cane Lane
The first time I heard mention of a candy cane forest in the movie Elf, I knew it was a magical place I wanted to see. You will find giant, iconic red and white candy canes straight out of a dream along Candy Cane Lane.
Winter Wonders by Madcap Puppets
Watch a festive blacklight puppet show at the Wings of Wonder Theater. Performances begin at 6:30, 7:30, and 8:30.
Choose your favorite animal and ride the carousel surrounded by illuminated scenery.
A favorite attraction for many locals, enjoy a walk through the brilliant rainbow tunnel.
Santa’s North Pole Village and Gingerbread Village
Tell Santa what you want for Christmas and pose for photos. Remember to search for the mouse in each house.
Magical Mrs. Claus
Visit with Mrs. Claus, just in case you forgot to ask Santa for something on your wish list.
Under the Sea
See a dazzling “underwater” world Cincinnati Zoo style.
Walk under the lights in the spectacular Roo Valley.
From the Reptile House, the Twinkle Trail leads you to the nativity scene by a sparkling path.
Meet a Creature
The zoo offers an opportunity for you to meet a creature. There are three different locations:
- Discovery Forest – Macaw/Sloth classroom
- Manatee Springs
- Clubhouse – adjacent to the train station
A mystery animal will be waiting for you at these locations from 5:00 to 9:00. What animal will you meet?
Elfie Selfie Stations
The zoo has set up three stations where you can take memorable selfies:
- Bennett’s Wallaby exhibit
- Base Camp Cafe
- Eagle Overlook
Shop for souvenirs or gifts at the zoo gift shops.
Warm up with a mug of fresh coffee, hot apple cider, or hot chocolate. Savor delicious seasonal fare like fresh-baked cookies, caramel apples, hot pretzels, roasted nuts, and funnel cakes.
- It takes 50 workers and hundreds of volunteers over 5,000 hours to install 4 million LED lights.
- The 120,000 strings of lights include 10 colors.
- If you strung the lights from end-to-end, they would stretch 284 miles.
- The Rainbow Tunnel alone has 1.5 miles of lights.
- In 2021, visitors at the Cincinnati Zoo Festival of Lights roasted 10,000 s’mores and drank 75,000 hot chocolates.
- Easter eggs on the new 29-foot tall Fiona nutcracker include Fritz, 29 buttons, a camera belt buckle, a birthstone, and watermelons.
Where to Start
Visit the Cincinnati Zoo site for details, current updates, and a digital map to plan your visit.
Wrap-Up: Cincinnati Zoo Festival of Lights
For the 40th year, the Cincinnati Zoo is turning on the light switch, bringing joy and holiday cheer. It has provided our family with treasured memories for two decades. Start your holiday tradition. Walk under the festive holiday lights and feel like a kid again!
About the author
We are Scott and Julie at Miles with McConkey. After nearly 30 years, we took a leap of faith out of the corporate world to enjoy a life of travel and adventure. We hope to inspire you to find ways to travel more and enjoy life now.