Holiday Lights is a seasonal event that takes place at the Bronx Zoo in New York City at Christmastime. After many years experiencing ZooLights at Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, we recently moved to New York and were excited to see the Holiday Lights at Bronx Zoo for the first time. Read on to learn more about Holiday Lights at Bronx Zoo, including a review of our experience and details for planning your own trip.
What is there to do at Holiday Lights at Bronx Zoo?
Holiday Lights is a special ticketed event at the Bronx Zoo that runs on select nights from mid-November though early January. You can find the 2023 schedule here. The event takes place at night, and the entire Zoo is decorated with lights and lanterns.
The main attraction at Holiday Lights is the lantern trails. There are five different trails, each of which represent a different geographical region (Africa, Asia, Latin America, North America and Oceans.) Along each trail are nearly life-sized lanterns that represent the animals and plants in that region.
Other than the lantern trails, there is a sprinkling other things to see and do at Holiday Lights.
- Light Displays: Most pathways through the zoo are decorated with lights, including many animal shaped displays. There’s also a dancing rainbow light tunnel and an interactive light area.
- Holiday Tree Show: Astor Court is decked out with lights, trees and glow balls that all flash and dance with synchronized music. This is also where you’ll find animal-inspired stilt walkers and other performers at staggered times throughout the evening.
- Ice Carving Demonstrations: This takes place in a covered area near the Latin America Lantern Trail. The carvings are on-going throughout the evening and take the shape of animals that you might also see on the lantern trails.
- Holiday Train: The train is open for guests of all ages and takes a small lap around the fountain just beyond Astor Court. Train rides require an additional ticket which costs $4 per ride ($3 for WCS members).
- Bug Carousel: The Carousel is no different during Holiday Lights than it is during the day, but rides during Holiday Lights are free versus the usual $7.
- Seasonal food and beverage offerings: The most festive offering is S’mores and More, which is located near the Oceans Lantern Trail. S’mores supplies are available for purchase ($5.99) and there are several fire pits on which to roast your ‘mallows. There’s also a Holiday Bar, located at the end of the Africa Lantern Trail, which offers spiked hot cocoa among other things.
Is Holiday Lights at Bronx Zoo a Christmas Event?
The event is billed as a “holiday” experience, but I didn’t find it to be particularly heavy-handed on any winter holidays. It does have some light Christmas components, but it’s definitely more lights festival than a Christmas event.
Other than the use of string lights commonly called “Christmas” lights, the lantern trails and light displays do not have any actual Christmas elements. It feels more like a dreamy, colorful light-up zoo than any kind of winter wonderland.
There were a few Christmas trees and some Christmas music around the event, but the Christmas theme was not overpowering. The most Christmas-y area was Astor Court, which had several Christmas trees. The Holiday Bar and Holiday Train are both seasonally titled, but lack many holiday touches.
Honestly, I think they could host this same event in the middle of summer and not have to make many changes to it’s current set up.
If you’re looking for more Christmas things to do in New York and this doesn’t quite hit the mark for you, be sure to check out our Christmas in NYC bucket list.
Tickets for Holiday Lights at Bronx Zoo
Holiday Lights requires a special ticket, which is separate from a standard Zoo entrance ticket. Tickets can only be purchased online and are not available for sale at the gate. Some dates and times do sell out, so book in advance if you can.
All tickets are timed, and you must arrive during your scheduled one-hour block. They do not have an official policy on how early or late you may still enter, though typically there’s a pretty lenient grace period. (I haven’t personally tested this, though.)
Tickets for adults 13+ cost $41.95. Discounted pricing is available for children ages 3-12 ($26.95) and seniors ages 65+ ($36.95). Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) members receive a 40% discount on Holiday Lights.
Active military and veterans can attend Holiday Lights for free, plus get 50% off three additional guest tickets. Use code MILITARYBZ for active personnel and VETERANBZ for veterans at checkout. (ID required at the entrance.)
What time does Holiday Lights Start?
Timed tickets for Holiday Lights at Bronx Zoo are available beginning at 3 PM. The Holiday Lights are turned on at 4:30 PM and remain lit until 9 PM on weeknights and 10 PM on Fridays and Saturdays. The last entry permitted is one hour before close.
The last standard zoo admission on Holiday Lights days is 12 PM. All guests arriving after 3 PM must have Holiday Lights tickets.
Are there any animals visible during Holiday Lights?
Not really. The animal enclosures close promptly at 4 PM and there are no animals easily visible from the lantern trails. We personally didn’t come across any animals during our visit, though we also weren’t looking.
If you want to see the animals at the zoo prior to Holiday Lights, you’ll need to book the earliest 3 PM Holiday Lights ticket. That allows one full hour to see the animals before enclosures close promptly at 4 PM.
How to get to the Bronx Zoo for Holiday Lights?
The Bronx Zoo is fairly easy to get to on public transit, but it can take a while to get there depending on where you’re coming from.
To get to the Bronx Zoo for Holiday Lights by train, take the 2 or 5 train to Pelham Parkway. From there, it’s a 10 minute / 0.5 mile walk to the Bronx River Gate entrance to the Bronx Zoo. From that gate, it’s then another 10 minute walk to Astor Court, which is the real start of the Holiday Lights.
A more convenient entrance for Holiday Lights is Southern Boulevard Gate, which is primarily accessible by bus. If you’re coming from south of the Zoo (including Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens), take the 2 or 5 train to Freeman Street Station. Then switch to the Bx19 bus which takes you right to the Southern Boulevard Gate entrance. This entrance puts you right into the heart of Holiday Lights.
If you’re driving, parking is available (first come, first served) near Southern Boulevard Gate and Bronx River Gate. Parking is $20 per car.
How long does Holiday Lights take?
The official website suggests that most guests spend 2 – 3 hours at Holiday Lights. I would confirm that you really need at least two full hours to see and do everything at Holiday lights.
Despite my initial feeling that the event felt small, we still managed to fill a full 1.5 hours at Holiday Lights. That included a meal, walks through all of the lantern trails and a quick souvenir stop. We didn’t have time for the holiday train, carousel, s’mores or much time to spend watching the ice carving demonstrations or dancing lights.
We would have stayed longer, but we were visiting with a toddler who was already up past their bedtime.
Maps & Schedules for Holiday Lights at Bronx Zoo
There are no paper maps distributed at the event. There are a few large maps posted, primarily at the entrances, but if you want to keep the map with you you’ll need to use the interactive map. There are QR codes linking to it posted on many of the event signage, or you can view it in the Bronx Zoo app.
Throughout the event you’ll see signs with suggested routes, which guide you through areas in a logical order. This helps you see the whole event without worrying too much about the map.
The show times and schedules are posted near each attraction. You can view the full schedule online in advance here to help plan your visit.
Our Experience at Holiday Lights at Bronx Zoo
We visited Holiday Lights at Bronx Zoo on a Saturday night in early December. Our travel party included two adults and our 2.25-year-old toddler. We were coming from Queens and it took us about 1.5 hours to get to the Bronx Zoo. This is how our visit went.
Part 1: Getting to the Bronx Zoo & Entering Holiday Lights
We recently took our toddler ice skating at Bryant Park on an unseasonably warm 65-degree November day. We were NOT that lucky with weather on our Holiday Lights visit. It was pouring rain when we got off the train at Pelham Parkway.
The weather apps made it look like the rain might not pass over anytime soon, so we felt like we had no choice but to trudge through the rain. The only umbrella we brought was a tiny, plastic Paw Patrol toy umbrella, which flipped inside out nearly immediately with the slightest breeze.
By the time we arrived at Bronx River Gate in 11 minutes, we were all soaked. I do not recommend making this commute in the rain. Fortunately (or comically), the rain stopped as soon as we entered the zoo and it remained pretty clear for the rest of the night.
We entered the Bronx Zoo at 5:22 for our 5-6 PM entry window. It was fully dark by then, and all the lights were on. The pathways leading us in from Bronx River Gate were illuminated with white lights and animal light displays. This entrance is really not ideal, because it’s quite far from the bulk of the Holiday Lights attractions. But if you want to take the train, it’s really the only option.
We passed signs for the Holiday Train, but we were coming up on dinner time so we skipped that. Instead, we briefly watched the light show at Astor Court. The stilt walkers were not performing due to the weather, so we quickly moved on.
Part 2: Eating at Bronx Zoo during Holiday Lights
By the time we made it to the heart of the Holiday Lights area, it was basically dinner time. We made a bee line to Dancing Crane Cafe, the only full restaurant open during Holiday Lights. There’s a large outdoor snack kiosk by the same name and then the full cafe with indoor seating is just behind that.
Dancing Crane Cafe had a pretty solid food lineup, with good options for vegetarians and children. They offered standard cafe fare including burgers, fries, pizza, pasta, sandwiches, salads and grain bowls. We picked up a cheese pizza, pesto pasta, Beyond chicken Caesar salad and a drink for about $40, which included a WCS member discount.
The lines were short when we were there and there was a fair amount of indoor seating available. We didn’t immediately see or note any high chairs, but our toddler did ok sitting on a regular chair. The food was fine and dinner was consumed without chaos so that’s a win in our book.
While Dancing Crane Cafe is the only full restaurant with indoor seating, there are other kiosks available serving food and snacks throughout the park. The best alternative place for food is the Holiday Bar, which had a variety of meat and vegetarian empanadas available. Otherwise it was standard snack options like popcorn, pretzels and hot cocoa.
On our way out of the restaurant, we passed the Wildlife Theater. There was a posted schedule of shows and showtimes, but there was nothing going at the moment. Between shows, they had fish puppets engaging with kids, which our little one loved enough to want to go up to, but not enough to want to touch them or stay for too long.
Part 3: Holiday Trails & Interactive Zone
After dinner, we headed out for the lantern trails. We started at the Asia Lantern Trail. It was beautiful, but it was shorter than I expected. Our little one loved it too, until they saw a kid with a light up toy which quickly became the only thing they could think or talk about. That’s toddlers for ya.
At the end of the Asia trail, was the highlight of our entire visit: the interactive zone. In a small, open area, there were maybe a hundred light pads that changed colors when you jumped on them. I didn’t see any advertisements for this area, but it was so fun. Even though it was wet when we were there, the space was filled with children running and jumping on all the dots. The only way we got our child to leave this area was with bribes of hot cocoa.
Next was the Africa and Latin America LanternTrails, with the Holiday Bar and ice carving sandwiched in the middle. The Holiday Bar offered alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages, empanadas and churros. There was not much seating and the area itself wasn’t very festive or appealing.
The ice carving was in a covered tent that’s a bit off the path. The artist appeared to be quite talented though and was working on his second sculpture of the evening when we arrived. Out toddler was not impressed though, so we moved on.
We wrapped up with a lap through the Latin America, Forest of Color and Ocean lantern trails. The lantern trails were all really well done, beautiful, colorful, all of that — but they did start to all look the same after a while. The only one that really stood out to be a bit different was the oceans, and that’s just because there were blue lights overhead so it felt a bit like you were going underwater.
As I mentioned above, the trails are animal-centric and do not have a lot of holiday touches.
Part 4: What we missed
We were visiting Holiday Lights with a toddler, and we were on a bit of a rushed schedule. The event doesn’t even start until 4:30, and we booked 5 PM tickets to be sure we had time to get there after our little one’s nap. That gave us about two hours max at the event, which would still have us leaving the zoo after our kid’s usual bedtime and with a 90 minute commute ahead of us.
Because of our time crunch, we skipped three big components of Holiday Lights. We did not ride the Bug Carousel (included with Holiday Lights ticket), ride the holiday train (extra $4 per rider) or do the s’mores experience (extra $5.99).
I think adding these three things would have required at least one more hour at the event, which is time we just didn’t have. That surely would have given us a more complete experience. That’s why we suggest staying at least 2 and maybe even 3 hours, versus our 1.5.
Is Holiday Lights at Bronx Zoo worth it?
I have mixed feelings on Holiday Lights. I had a nice time, and overall my child had fun. That said, the event is expensive, it’s late (for a toddler who usually goes to bed at 7) and it was hard to get to for us (this of course depends where you’re coming from). Plus, it also lacked the holiday flare I was looking for.
We are WCS members and spent $62 for two adults with our discount. Our 2-year-old didn’t yet need a ticket. If we didn’t have a membership and our child was 3, the outing would have cost us $80. That’s not cheap, but it’s also not outrageous compared to other ticketed holiday events in NYC, like the Holiday Train Show at the Botanical Gardens or even Ice Skating at Bryant Park on some days. If I was already doing a different ticketed holiday event, I would not pay more to also see Holiday Lights.
One main down side for us was that the event was far from our home in Queens. It took us almost 90 minutes to get there, and it can be just as long from many locations in Queens, Manhattan and Brooklyn. Since the event doesn’t start until 5 PM, that can add up to a late night for children. If you are driving or local to the Bronx, this might not be an issue for you.
Lastly, I didn’t find Holiday Lights to be particularly holiday-y. There were holiday touches, but the event is more evening-at-the-zoo than it is Christmas-night-out. That said, the animal lanterns are a unique, creative and beautiful, which promises variety from the traditional Christmas light displays you might find elsewhere.
So is it worth it? If you’re visiting New York at Christmas time and you have a limited number of days for holiday experiences, I would say to skip Holiday Lights. If you’re a local and you’ve done a lot of the other holiday activities in the area already and you’re looking to try something new, this is a fun thing to add to your December plans.