Lion lantern at Cincinnati Zoo Festival of Lights

Your Guide to the Cincinnati Zoo Festival of Lights

The PNC Festival of Lights at the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden will turn on its lights this November for the 41st 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. Yes, it is a cherished family holiday tradition! 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 17, 2023 – January 7, 2024.

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

Rhino lantern at Cincinnati Zoo Festival of Lights
Rhino Lantern. Photo credit: Miles with McConkey

Animals, regularly in outdoor exhibits, may stay inside due to winter temperatures. You can observe animals at indoor exhibits. 

For most outdoor zoo 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 Fritz the Hippo. It may be challenging to imagine, but Fritz is over a year old. He is still a favorite among zoo visitors. 

Please note that 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 am to 9 pm.
  • Friday and Saturday: 10 am to 10 pm.

Activities for the PNC Festival of Lights begin at 4:00. Guests can ride the North Polar Express Train and Conservation Carousel starting at 2:30.

Cincinnati Zoo Holiday Closures

The zoo is closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, and Christmas.

Special Events

Visit with Santa

You can visit with jolly old Saint Nick in Santa’s Village each evening starting at 4:00. Be sure to tell Santa what you want for Christmas. Your last opportunity to meet with the Big Man is December 23.

Sensory-Friendly Santa

The Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden’s Access for All program allows guests of all backgrounds and abilities to have a memorable experience. Accordingly, the zoo has Sensory-Friendly Santa visits from 1:00 to 3:00 on the following dates:

  • November 29 – December 1
  • December 3
  • December 14 – 17
  • December 21 – 23

Beginning November 13, you can make reservations for a Sensory-Friendly Santa visit.

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 occurs at the zoo on December 31, 8:00. It will be a kid-friendly early countdown the whole family can enjoy. The zoo now features a 40-foot-tall digital tree as part of the festivities.

What is New This Year?

The Cincinnati Zoo delivers a few new holiday gifts for the Festival of Lights. Animal lanterns are so popular with guests that the zoo brings you more this year. Guests will discover new lanterns in the Under the Sea display, and a Merry Manatee display that features hanging manatee lanterns.

The Vine Street Village Christmas Tree now dons a dazzling 5-foot star. 

When it comes to food, guests can now enjoy light-up cotton candy. The only thing that may glow more than the cotton candy will be the faces of kids eating the sticky and colorful treat.

In the 2023 – 2024 holiday season, the most significant festival addition is the ability for guests to be part of the show. By downloading a free CUE Live app to a mobile phone, guests can help light up the zoo. 

It is an interactive experience where you can sync your phone’s flashlight to the Swan Lake Wild Lights show. The app includes a selfie cam with various filters so you can create some fun pictures to commemorate the moment. Admittedly, I am anxious to try this new experience with my family.

Attractions and Activities

The Festival of Lights has many attractions and activities for families. It is also the perfect event for a date night to celebrate the holidays.

Fiona the Nutcracker

As you prepare to ascend the escalator from the parking lot to the entrance, a unique 29-foot-tall Fiona nutcracker welcomes you to the zoo. 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 Tree

Vine Street Village Welcome Tree at Cincinnati Zoo Festival of Lights
Vine Street Village Tree. Photo credit: Miles with McConkey

Various holiday characters roam around the beautifully decorated 40-foot-tall Christmas tree beginning at 5:00 nightly. You can have your photo taken with a holiday character. I must issue a friendly warning. Not all the characters are jolly. Keep an eye out for the Grinch.

Santa’s Village

You will find Santa and Mrs. Claus together at the Picnic Shelters. Santa’s North Pole Village houses Santa’s Sleigh, a hot chocolate stand, and a Gingerbread Village. Did I mention photo ops? You can get your picture taken with Santa, Mrs. Claus, and Santa’s Sleigh.

Animal Lanterns

The animal lanterns return with a few new members. Now, you can search for and enjoy 30 larger-than-life animal lanterns throughout the zoo.

Tunnels of Lights

A tunnel of lights at the Cincinnati Zoo Festival of Lights
Pausing for a picture under a tunnel of lights. Photo credit: Miles with McConkey

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.

Search for the fan-favorite Rainbow Tunnel. Another lighted tunnel guides your way to Santa’s Village.

Hot Hippo Purple Hot Chocolate Drink

Fiona mug for the new hot hippo purple hot chocolate drink
Fiona Mug. Photo credit: Miles with McConkey

Last year’s Hot Hippo purple hot chocolate drink was such a big hit that it has returned. You can purchase the purple drink in a souvenir mug at Hot Hippo Headquarters, Cup and Cone, and S’mores & More at Vine Street Village.

Make S’mores

Huddle around an open fire with your family, roasting marshmallows and eating s’mores. It is shaping up to be a great evening!

Swan Lake Wild Lights Show

Watch a fabulous light show perfectly timed to music on the tranquil Swan Lake. This year, you can be part of the show.

Fiona’s Fairyland

Fiona Fairy in Cincinnati Zoo Festival of Lights
Gold Fiona Fairy. Photo credit: Miles with McConkey

Set out on a treasure hunt in Fiona’s Fairyland. Search high and low to discover all five Fiona fairies. One is gold.

Menorah Display

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.

Nativity Scene

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.

Carousel

Choose your favorite animal and ride the carousel surrounded by illuminated scenery. Carousel rides start at 2:30, and extra charges apply to non-members.

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 in case you still need to ask Santa for something on your wish list.

Under the Sea

Jellyfish lanterns at the Cincinnati Zoo Festival of Lights
Jellyfish Lanterns. Photo credit: Miles with McConkey

See a dazzling “underwater” world Cincinnati Zoo style. The immersive world is mesmerizing.

Twinkle Trail

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 four stations where you can take memorable selfies. Two are near Santa and Mrs Claus. Another sits between Manatee Springs and the black rhino exhibit. Lastly, you can find a station between Hops Beer Garden and the Reptile House.

Gift Shops

Shop for souvenirs or gifts at the zoo gift shops.

Holiday Treats

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.

Fun Facts

Zebra lantern at Cincinnati Zoo Festival of Lights
Zebra Lantern. Photo credit: Miles with McConkey
  • It takes zoo workers and volunteers over 5,000 hours to install 4 million LED lights.
  • Workers and volunteers start setting up the lights in August.
  • The 120,000 strings of lights comprise 15 colors.
  • If you strung the lights from end-to-end, they would stretch 284 miles from Cincinnati to Nashville.
  • The Rainbow Tunnel alone has 1.5 miles of lights.
  • In 2022, visitors at the Cincinnati Zoo Festival of Lights roasted over 5,000 s’mores and ate over 7,000 funnel cakes. 
  • Guests drank nearly 10,000 purple Hot Hippos and over 69,000 hot chocolates at last year’s event.
  • Easter eggs on the 29-foot-tall Fiona nutcracker include Fritz, 29 buttons, a camera belt buckle, a birthstone, and watermelons.
  • Since switching to LED lights, the Cincinnati Zoo has saved $50,000 yearly on its electric bill.

Where to Start

Visit the Cincinnati Zoo site for details, current updates, and a digital map to plan your visit.

Experience the Cincinnati Zoo Festival of Lights

For the 41st 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!

Featured image credit: Miles with McConkey

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