Zoolights at Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium is one of Washington state’s largest Christmas lights displays. With more than 700,000 lights decorating the zoo grounds, it’s just a whole lot of twinkliness (that’s the scientific term). Like its zoo neighbor to the north, Woodland Park Zoo, many of the displays revolve around the wildlife that lives at the zoo, which means it’s an automatic hit with kids…and grown ups too. I’ll be honest. I was going to this display long before I had kids. It makes a pretty nifty date night too.
The Quick Version of What to Know about Zoolights Tacoma
- 700,000 LED lights arranged on trees and in displays.
- Both animated and static displays.
- This display is open to the elements and walk-through, so dress for the weather.
- You can also ride the carousel or grab a bite to eat at the café.
- Zoolights is located at Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium at 5400 N Pearl Street, Tacoma, WA 98407.
What You’ll See
One of the best parts of arriving at Zoolights is that right when you cross through the gates, you’ll see an impressive expanse of sparkly goodness unfurl before you since the entrance leads to a commons, of sorts, that overlooks part of the zoo grounds. Right at the entrance in that commons in a ringed and lighted “frame” where you can snag a photo (or ask a kind passerby to snag one of your whole group), but don’t worry. There are tons and tons of photo ops throughout Zoolights, assuming your camera can handle the dim lighting.
First and foremost, since this is a zoo, you might expect to have a zoo experience while you’re seeing your Christmas lights, but most of the resident animals are asleep. You’ll come across a few that are up to say hi (namely the meerkats, who as far as I can tell never sleep as there are always some active whatever time of day I’ve visited). The South Pacific Aquarium is open and makes a great place to warm up on a cold night, and a place to take a peep at some fish and sharks. The Pacific Seas Aquarium (home to the sea turtles and hammerheads), though, is not open. You’ll also see a few animals who are sleeping and inevitably you’ll see some kids or even parents knocking on the glass of their enclosures…don’t do that. It’s not nice.
Just about every path through the zoo is decorated so don’t worry too much about going the right way. Just follow the lights and enjoy. I usually head down to the right and follow the path in a giant, counterclockwise loop. You’ll see all kinds of displays. Many of the trees and shrubs and even plants like bamboo are decorated along the pathways, but there are also 2D and 3D displays of animals of all shapes and sizes. Look for tigers hiding in the bamboo or the giant 3D octopus on the top of the South Pacific Aquarium (to be fair, it’s tough to miss). There are also lots of animated displays – look for a bear to catch a salmon or a parrot to swoop down over a walkway. My favorites are the Flame Tree, which is near the center of the zoo and which is decked out in nearly solid lights so it’s one of the brightest displays you’ll see anywhere, as well as the Narrows Bridges, which always just stand out as super pretty.
What Else to Do
Of course, the feature of the night is looking at Christmas lights, but there are a few other things to do on the zoo grounds while you’re at Zoolights. Head to the right once you enter the zoo and you’ll find the café, which is where you can grab a bite to eat (mostly snacks and quick food), but it’s even better for getting some hot chocolate or tea to stroll with. Also to the right and just past the café is the carousel, which has all kinds of zoo animals that kids can choose from to ride.
Many years also have camel rides, but in 2019, there are no camels to ride. Instead, the Narrows Bridges display is located where the camels usually hang out.
Or if you want to pair your Zoolights experience with dinner or a movie or even an ice skating rink (most years), Point Ruston is nearby and you can head there before or after your Zoolights experience.
Ticket Options and Discounts
You can just show up and buy tickets at the gate, but you’ll be waiting in whatever line there is that night and you’ll pay full price. If you prefer to get your tickets at a discount, there are a few ways to do that. The easiest is to buy your tickets in advance at a Fred Meyer customer service desk where you’ll get tickets for $2 off. You can also buy online at the zoo website where tickets are also $2 off, but there’s usually a processing fee – so Fred Meyer is still your better bet.
Zoo members get in for half price whether they buy online or at the gate. Woo!
Kids 2 and under are free.
You can also buy a combo ticket that will get you into the zoo by day and Zoolights by night, but these are available only from the zoo or zoo website.
Parking is free!
Getting There and Parking
Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium is located at 5400 N Pearl Street in Tacoma, which is the far northern point of Pearl Street (as in drive north on Pearl and you will go straight into Point Defiance Park). The park is huge so once you get to the entrance, you’ll need to follow signs to the zoo. Signage is well marked and chances are that most of the other people in the park will also be going to the zoo since the park closes just after dusk.
Parking is free, but you may have a tough time finding parking in the lots closest to the zoo on busy nights, but if the main lots are full, you’ll be directed to park at one of the auxiliary lots and will take a free shuttle to the entrance. While you may or may not score a spot right next to the zoo entrance, rest assured there’s plenty of parking to go around.