WildLanterns at the Zoo

Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle has a new winter-season light display called WildLanterns. The displays are absolutely gorgeous, and walking around the zoo after dark looking at the lanterns made for a special evening for our family in a year with few new and inspiring experiences. I would recommend it for people of any age, although since walking the whole experience takes almost two hours, toddlers and preschoolers may not have as much patience for it as older children and adults.

The Experience

When you arrive, you get into a long but fast-moving socially distanced line. They scan your ticket, and in you go. Most of the time, you’ll be walking along the paths, gazing at the lantern displays around you. There are a few animal exhibits open (the penguins, the meerkats and bats – though the meerkats are diurnal and were all sleeping and the bats were hard to see.)

Everywhere you look, there are beautiful scenes.

There are A LOT of displays!! As you walk down the path by the carousel, there’s otters, then lions, then eagles, then wolves, then orca, one after another after another. And in every area, there are a LOT of every animal. For example, in the panda display, there were at least 28 pandas! We were amazed at how many items were on display. Here are a few photos of some details I particularly liked.

Some animals have moving parts – like a lion’s tail that waves, eagle wings that flap, and more. One of the highlights, when you first enter, near the penguins is a peacock whose tail is lifted with hydraulics for an incredible display – check out the video below. It was fun to watch the children’s delight when the tail came up.

The visuals are great. I think the one thing about the event I would improve is the audio experience. There was music playing – just low key environmental music – it was fine and pleasant but not inspiring. Also, it could have been louder. It was a comfortable volume standing right in front of a speaker, but faded to pretty quiet when you were between speakers. You can hear the music in this walk-through video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rsSkMTk0hsg

We walked the Living Northwest loop, then through the Jungle Lights zone fairly quickly (since we knew we’d be back, and it was the most crowded area, then Seamazium with an underwater theme, then the African Savanna zone, then a desert area, then back through Jungle Lights.

It is beautiful, and a festive winter event, but I think it’s worth noting that it is not a “winter holidays” event. You will not hear Christmas music or see a lit-up dreidel or a solstice celebration. If you’re specifically hoping for Christmas theme, you may want to try another special event.

Interactive Zones

Near the south entrance, there is a tree surrounded by lit up stars on the ground. If you step on them, they make musical notes! Near there, in the African village, you’ll find a lit up piano to walk on. (A staff person makes sure people line up nicely and enter the area one household at a time.) On the Jungle Lights path, there’s an area with a cool lit-up tunnel to walk into, and a photo opp with angel wings and a halo (my son doesn’t appear to have a halo in this picture… hmmm….)

Also in that area is my favorite thing of the whole event: there are bubble blowing machines that must dip into dry ice, so they blow streams of these cool opaque bubbles, and when the bubbles pop, they release clouds of gas. You’ll see them in the video below. (Note, the bubbles were the most challenging place to maintain social distancing, because we all wanted to crowd together in the stream of bubbles. There were lots of playful giggles from the children, and delighted sounds from adults too.)

The Logistics

WildLanterns will be held November 13, 2020 – January 17, 2021, from 4:00 – 8:30 p.m. They are closed Mondays and November 26 and December 24 & 25.

Scheduling

You MUST purchase your tickets in advance. They are for a specific day and for a specific entry time. (For example, we had tickets for 7:00 pm on Saturday 11/28. We were asked not to arrive before 6:55, and not to arrive after 7:30 pm.) Once you arrive, you can spend as long as you choose there. We walked at a leisurely pace through all exhibits, stopped for a quick snack and a bathroom break and it took us one hour 45 minutes.

Ours was the last timeslot of the day, and I recommend that for adults or those whose children have later bed times. When we first arrived, we did the “Living Northwest” loop and Jungle Lights, and on Jungle Lights, there were times where it felt a little too crowded for my COVID comfort. (i.e. there were people who passed within 12 feet of me.) And there was a long line for the interactive area. But by the time we were moving through Seamazium and the African Savannah, there was hardly anyone else around. When we passed by the Jungle Lights interactive area again (at 15 minutes till zoo closing time) we were some of the very few people left.

If you want to minimize the number of people there when you attend, I’m sure weekdays are slower than the Saturday night of Thanksgiving weekend was. And January will almost certainly be slower than December.

Cost

It’s $28.95 per adult (13+). $23.95 for children ages 3 – 12. Toddlers 2 and under are free. Parking is $4. If that seems steep to you, I ask you to consider two things: First, remember that you’re supporting the zoo during a year of financial hardship for them and all public exhibitions. Second, there’s not a lot of other holiday activities to spend money on this year, so it’s a great year to check out this event. Some other year you’ll spend your holiday event budget on the Nutcracker. This can be your special event this season.

Weather

WildLanterns is a rain or shine event—there will be no ticket refunds for weather. The night we were there was a clear night with no wind or rain. It was in the mid 40’s when we arrived, and 40 when we left.

I was wearing flannel-lined jeans, a coat, lightweight gloves, lightweight earmuffs, and my mask and was very comfortable the whole time.

If it’s a rainy night, wear rain gear and bring an umbrella! The only places I remember where you could have gotten out of the rain were: the covered seating under the tent by Gather and Graze (for those who are eating), the building in the African Savannah, and the meerkat exhibit, and you can’t be in either of those places for very long due to COVID requirements to keep distanced.

There were some fire pits in a few places around the zoo. They ask that you only gather at them with members of your own household, and then move on to let others use them. They were good for warming your hands over if you held them close to the flame, but they weren’t body warming intensity.

Food and Beverages

There were snacks in the North Meadow, Gather and Graze, and at the south end of the zoo. I saw: popcorn, hot pretzels, cotton candy, hot drinks. There may have been more, but we’d eaten dinner just before coming, so we didn’t look closely. You can also bring your own food. All food must be eaten in designated areas and cannot be consumed all around the zoo (because you need to remove your mask to eat.)

COVID Precautions

Everyone over the age of 5 is required to wear a mask properly. Children age 2 to 5 are encouraged to wear masks. You are asked to stay at least 6 feet apart from other guests. We were able to maintain this almost the whole time, but around the bubbles at the interactive exhibit, children were running and playing in the bubbles and were closer, and people also crowded around the peacock, although there was no need to, as you could watch easily from a long ways away. The Jungle Lights path is the most crowded area, as the two loops overlap there. Bathrooms were open, but I didn’t use them, so can’t report anything there. No strollers are available for rent (bring your own) but you can rent a wheelchair.

More Activities

If you’re looking for more lovely winter walks in King County, check out my post on low-contact parks on the Eastside, which highlights some lesser known gems that are rarely crowded – helpful in COVID times. If you have children under the age of five, I highly recommend you check out the parent education programs offered by all our community college programs – fun learning for your kids, and social connections and support for you in these isolating times. Some are in-person now, many are online only. (If you’re dubious about online learning for young children check out this article on online preschool.)

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