Lions and tigers and panda claws, oh my!

December 10, 2016

by Katelyn Becker

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WASHINGTON- The animals at The Smithsonian National Zoo are joining in on the holiday fun.

Zoo Lights, an annual event at The National Zoo in the Woodley Park area of Washington, fills the zoo with holiday cheer from Nov. 27 to Jan. 2 between 5 and 9 p.m.

In the spirit of the season, the zoo is decorated with more than 500,000 LED lights powered by PEPCO. The lights adorn the trees, bushes and animal houses throughout the zoo. Admission is free.

Senior Special Events Manager Dan Pierron said what makes him smile most is “talking with people; there’s a lot of people who turn this into a tradition.”

Pierron said staffers start wrapping the trees with lights in October and take a brief break for Halloween. Then in November they put up the dancing lights and animal displays.

On the Connecticut Avenue side of the zoo, the entrance is lit up with the words “Zoo Lights.” Visitors hear holiday music as they enter and see an array of colors on the trees and in the grass.

Pierron said Zoo Lights has become an annual event since the success of the first one in 2007.

“It used to cover only half of the zoo,” he said. “Now the lights go from one end to the other.” He said they added more lights, dancing trees and the laser show. There is even a “Panda Claws” dressed as Santa who will pose for pictures with guests.

The number of people attending has also skyrocketed from 35,000 in the first year to more than 200,000 people this past year.

There are also some special attractions along the walk — a carousel and a tubing slide, which both cost $3. There are gift shops and food stands.

Pierron said watching “the kids probably squealing” makes it a rewarding event.

The visitors’ center is not far on the left side after entering. It features toy trains and a display complete with a town built of Legos. There was a line of children on their tippy toes watching the trains.

The center also has a table of gingerbread houses. Various artists and local residents built the houses and most of them had animals made out of candy.

All of the outdoor exhibits are closed at night, so the visitors cannot see the animals unless they are housed inside.

In front of the elephant exhibit, there is also a laser light show. It is projected on the wall of the building and features a quick-moving laser animation set to holiday songs.

Kristen Long, a Maryland native, works a kiosk and the gift shop at the Smithsonian Zoo. She said she enjoys working under the lights during the holiday season.

Long was standing at her kiosk next to a heater. She said that the hats and gloves are the popular items lately because of the cold weather. Although the most popular item is the necklace that looks like a string of holiday lights.

“I used to work in regular retail and people are in a bad mood,” she said. But during Zoo Lights nights, “People are more positive.”

The zoo also features specialty nights like Brew Nights. This event was a paid night where people over 21 pay a flat rate for beer in tents around the zoo. The night also featured a dance floor and an outdoor bar. Pierron said that their main audience is usually families. With events like Brew Lights, he said, “We can reach young professionals and get them excited.” Upcoming events include Date Night and Military Night.

Liz Emanuel was standing alone near the carousel. “I’m actually on a first date,” Emanuel said at a recent Brew Night event.

She is a graduate of Wake Forest University and recently moved to the District. This is her first holiday season in the area and she had never been to Zoo Lights before. She said her date suggested it.

“It’s a nice break from the norm,” she said.

For more information about the zoo’s upcoming events:


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