As the temperatures dip a little lower and the sun sets a lot earlier, who couldn’t use a little light to brighten up their evening? And by a little light, we mean more than two million lights: twinkling, sparkling, draped over trees, and artfully shaped into your favorite zoo animals. Yes, it’s time once again for ZooLights, so bring your kids (or, heck, even just your inner child) to the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago’s famed Lincoln Park for the wildest winter wonderland in town.
You’ll know you’re in the right place when you see trees wrapped in brilliant red and white stripes and giant green holly leaves. Enter the zoo and step into a magical world of exotic animals in exotic environments as you take in the colorful surroundings. You can wander the grounds at your leisure, of course, but there’s a good chance your kids will drag you directly to the Lionel Train Adventure. Let them. This large-scale replica based on the 114-year-old model train set that your great-grandfather very well might have loved is a perfect way to explore the park. See who can spot the dinosaur fossils as you chug through the canyon, then start caroling as the scenery transitions into a tree-filled forest.
Once the train returns to the station, shepherd your little flock to the AT&T Endangered Species Carousel. There, you can each choose one of 48 hand-carved wooden animals such as cheetahs and giant pandas to ride, unless you prefer to snuggle up in one of the two chariots. Here’s an opportunity to set your camera to video mode, as the combination of music, lights, and your children’s laughter makes for the sweetest holiday scene. Keep that camera out as you head inside the Kovler Lion House to warm up with the big cats. When you do, be sure to say hi to the man in red: The lion house is the temporary residence of Santa Claus himself (though don’t expect the big kitty to be sitting on his lap).
No holiday festival would be complete without ice skating, so make the Farm-in-the-Zoo exhibit your next stop. There, you can glide along against a barnyard backdrop at the zoo’s outdoor rink, spinning and jumping (and maybe falling down) under the starry sky. When you hang up the skates, reward your future figure skaters and hockey heroes with delicious cups of hot cocoa while you chase the chill from your own bones with warm spiced wine, the perfect après-ice treat.
The zoo exhibits remain open to visitors each evening, so while you’re for here for ZooLights, drop in on the animals that you’re used to seeing during the day. With over 200 species, including toddler gorillas and brand-new baby dwarf mongooses (both as cute as they sound), the Lincoln Park Zoo has long been considered one of the best urban zoos in the country – with one of the best conservation programs. The festivities take place throughout December, but check the site for the full schedule. As always, admission to the Lincoln Park Zoo – and ZooLights – is free.