Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens is just gorgeous at night this month for its first-ever ZOOLights, a celebration of the holidays in which visitors can visit the zoo at night and admire the lights.
In addition to Christmas lights throughout the zoo, there is also a nightly snowfall (at 8 p.m.), Santa and Mrs. Claus, bounce houses, carolers, Christmas music and more. For a small fee in addition to the entry fee, you can also ride the train — decked out in lights, as well — and the carousel. The 4D theatre ride is also in action throughout the evening, with Polar Express showing.
We went to this event on Saturday night — the evening after it debuted — and learned the hard way that we should have ordered tickets online. We had debated about it: there is a $1 discount for any ticket purchased online, but we wanted the flexibility to be able to leave before buying tickets if we didn’t think it seemed like the right scene for our little ones. When we arrived, we had to wait in a line that stretched the length of the entire parking lot. We literally stood in line for 90 minutes, watching as people who purchased tickets online marched straight up to the entrance for a much shorter wait. Some people were able to get tickets and show proof on their phones at the entrance. We, however, waited, and waited, and waited.
Perhaps the wait won’t be this long on other nights, but why chance it? Learn from our mistake and get your tickets in advance at this link.
Once we finally got inside, it was well past the kids’ bedtime, so unfortunately we didn’t even venture into the bounce house area, nor did we board the train. But what we did see was absolutely lovely. They had beautiful lights wrapped around many of the trees, hanging like Spanish moss from the oaks, and strung overhead. There were also all kinds of animal-themed light displays. I loved the tall giraffes that appeared to move their heads up and down, not far from the real giraffes, who rested in their sanctuary. A guide from the zoo explained that giraffes sleep for just a few minutes at a time. The Africa end of the zoo was closed off, so only those aboard the train were able to see it.
At one point, we spotted Jazoo, the zoo’s beloved Lion mascot, walking around in a festive Santa suit.
I noticed that, after the line to get in, there was another pretty long line of people waiting to ride the train. We just couldn’t put our kids through another line after they were complete angels for the 90 minutes we’d already waited — and, believe me, there were a lot of understandably miserable kids in that long line. But the train did look like a lot of fun. It was decorated in holiday lights, and it took folks all through the zoo as always. There was just one location to get on and off the train, near the main entrance… it only passed through the train stop near the Asia end of the zoo.
I’d absolutely recommend taking the time to check this out. It’s a really neat, up-close way to enjoy holiday lights. And from the sounds coming from the Great Lawn, there was a lot of fun going on with the bounce houses and snow. So just learn from our mistake: plan ahead, get your tickets in advance, and maybe bring a couple things to keep your kids occupied while you’re waiting in line. Going on a night other than Saturday, if possible, might help, too.
If you want to go:
Where: Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens, 370 Zoo Parkway, Jacksonville, FL
When: 6:30-9:30 p.m. December 14-31, open until 10:00 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. Closed December 25.
Cost: $7 for zoo members, $9 for non-members. PLEASE take advantage of the online ticket link: it not only gives you a discount, but also saves you from standing in line for an hour waiting to get the ticket you could have bought online. If you find yourself at this event without a ticket, you can purchase them online and show them on your phone. Discount for tickets purchased online at this link. Additional small fees apply to carousel, train and 4-D rides.
For more information: Go to jacksonvillezoo.org.