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Visiting the Smithsonian Zoolights

Updated: December 3, 2023

One of the most popular things to do in DC around the December holidays is Zoolights at the Smithsonian Zoo.

Zoolights is back for 2023 running Friday, November 24, 2023 to Friday, December 30, 2023 | 5:00 pm to 9:00 pm.

Tickets are required for entry!

I took my kids to Zoolights this year to see if it was worth the new fee - and it was a resounding yes from my animal & light obsessed kids!

Come and enjoy a truly magical and holiday attraction.

Moose Display at Smithsonian Zoolights

ZooLights Washington DC at the Smithsonian National Zoo welcomes visitors with illuminated trees and animal silhouettes as well as musical light shows and much more.

For more holiday events and attractions, visit our post on visiting Washington DC for Christmas and the Holidays

Is ZooLights worth the ticket price?

A lot has changed with Zoolights this year. Tickets are no longer free and have a nominal fee of $6 for every person over the age of 2. The snow tubing, Glow Zone, and train are gone along with the pandas. And the animal houses are closed!

Many of the guests in our Washington DC Travel Tips Facebook group have been wondering if its still worth the visit since it has less attractions AND is no longer free?

Canden and Fam at Zoolights 2023

We loved it!

But we are biased, because we love the Zoo and want to support it and my kids are 4 and 6 and easily amused by lights.

Zoolights is great for young kids who will be intrigued by visiting the Zoo at a different time than usual.

Many of the main light displays are run by the Chinese Lantern Festival so if you're checking that out, too, it might be redundant.


  • Become a member of the National Zoo!

No, the Zoo didn't tell us to say this but you're going to get a way more fun experience.

If you plan on visiting the Zoo twice (this includes one during the day and another time at Zoolights), you might as well become a member.

In addition to the many benefits available all year, Zoo members get FREE admission and one FREE parking pass for Zoolights.

What we loved most about going on a Members Only night is that it was much less crowded, the are are automatic discounts on all retail and food and some of the animal houses were open!

The Small Mammal House, Pachyderm Plaza, Reptile Discovery Center are open only on Members Nights.

Animal Houses are open on Member Nights Only
  • Start at the bottom of the hill

It's more fun to walk up the hill while you're looking at the light displays. The second time you see them, at least you'll be walking downhill.

This only works if you drive and park in the lots at the bottom of the hill (farthest from the Connecticut Ave entrance).

If you're arriving on foot/Metro, you'll start at the top of the hill by default.

The panda lantern is at the bottom of the hill next to the Kid's Farm!

Pandas are at the National Zoo, again... kind of
  • Grab some popcorn before you get in line for the carousel and maybe DON'T ask your kids which one they want to ride.

The line moves fast but it is long. I've trained my kids to "get what you get and you don't get upset" but the number of crying kids who didn't get to ride the animal they wanted because it was claimed by the time they got to board was ... a lot.


What is there to do at Zoolights?

In addition to enjoying the light displays, there are is live entertainment every night. The stage is right next to firepits where you can purchase s'more kits!

Live Entertainment is available every night of Zoolights.

The Speedwell Foundation Conservation Carousel is powered by solar energy ready to take you and your family on a whirlwind tour of the Zoo's conservation and endangered species success stories.

You are no longer allowed to ride the live tortoises (you used to be able to!) but each seat on the Carousel is one of 58 animals you can ride. This is $4 a ride (unless you're a Zoo member - you can ride for free on member night!)

Zoolights Hours & Admission

  • WEEK 1 | Nov. 24, 25, 26 | Friday to Sunday
  • WEEK 2 | Dec. 1, 2, 3 | Friday to Sunday
  • WEEK 3 | Dec. 8, 9, 10 | Friday to Sunday
  • WEEK 4 | Dec. 15, 16, 17 | Friday to Sunday
  • WEEK 5 | Dec. 21, 22, 23 | Thursday to Saturday
  • WEEK 6 | Dec. 26, 27, 28, 29, 30 | Tuesday to Saturday

Admission to ZooLights is no longer free and a special entry pass separate from a daily Zoo pass will be required. You can get tickets to Zoolights here.

Passes open for reservation on a rolling basis, 4 weeks in advance

There is a flat-rate parking fee of $30. Daytime parking tickets are not valid for ZooLights parking.

About The Author

Canden Arciniega

Follow On Instagram | I'm a historian & tour guide in Washington DC with 4 published books about the city. I have written for HuffPost Travel and have been featured in the Washington Post, WTOP, and numerous other DC papers. I've also been interviewed by the BBC, NPR, Travel Channel and Discovery Family Channel. I am the producer of the podcast, Tour Guide Tell All. I am an authority on D.C. history, and have led tours in the city since 2011. I currently resides in DC, but have also lived in London and South Korea, and have traveled to over 28 countries and every US State but Hawaii. I homeschool my 2 children by exploring the plethora of museums in DC. Read More...
Updated: December 3rd, 2023
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