Why Tacoma Zoolights Has the Best Christmas Lights in the South Sound

Point Defiance Zoolights

Christine Majul / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

The Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium glows with the help of 700,000 energy-efficient LED lights during the annual Zoolights, a long-running Tacoma tradition. Starting just after Thanksgiving and continuing through New Year's Day, this luminous spectacle ups the ante on the holiday season, welcoming kids and adults alike to come visit wondrous creatures during the day and marvel at their synthetic counterparts at night. Guests can grab a hot cocoa, ride the carousel, and stroll the trails as many times as they want after dark.

In 2020, all indoor attractions, aquariums, and "high-touch areas" at Zoolights will be closed and the zoo will enforce face masks and social distancing. Guests must purchase tickets for a designated time slot ahead of time as capacity will be limited. Cafes will be open, but only for take-out food and beverages.

Event Highlights

The lights at Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium typically mimic local landmarks and scenes in nature. In 2020, you'll see an illuminated 23-foot Mount Rainier, two iterations of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, and the Seattle Kraken logo, for instance. An 8-foot-long sea turtle, giant crab with moving pincers, and 100-foot-wide octopus will represent the aquatic set while polar bears, ice skating puffins, and sledding penguins pay tribute to the winter season.

The Flame Tree—a large tree decked out in pinkish-purple lights—is one of the most iconic repeat displays. Apart from the familiar shapes and figures, Zoolights will showcase a longer-than-ever Tunnel of Lights in 2020—this time stretching 117 feet. Decorated shrubs and trees line just about every pathway on the property, so you'll never be far from the glittering entertainment.

Usually, there are other things to do beyond enjoying the lights—riding the antique carousel, enjoying a warm beverage at one of the zoo's cafes, or wandering the South Pacific Aquarium, where you can warm up amid sharks and tropical fish—however, these attractions have been suspended in 2020. In lieu, the zoo will provide a goat-grooming experience, Groovy Goats, that can be tacked onto your trip for an additional fee.

Dates and Admission

Zoolights will open November 27, 2020, and run through January 3, 2021. The park will be closed on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Hours are 4:30 to 10 p.m. nightly.

Admission to Zoolights costs $11 Monday through Thursday (or $5.50 for members) and $14 Friday through Saturday (or $7 for members), with special discounts for BECU members. Kids 2 years old and under get in free. Tickets must be purchased online in advance in 2020. No cash will be accepted in the park.

Parking and Crowds

There is ample free parking available in Point Defiance. The zoo has its own free lot and if you get there early enough (and early enough in the season), you may even be able to snag a spot right next to the entrance. However, some nights can be extremely crowded, especially the weekend before Christmas. If the zoo lots are full, you'll be directed to auxiliary parking at Owen Beach, Fort Nisqually, or others. There are frequently running shuttles that travel between the auxiliary lots and the zoo entrance.

Don't count on post-Christmas crowds to dwindle, either. The final days of December can be just as busy as any.

Getting There

Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium is located on a peninsula in North Tacoma, at 5400 North Pearl Street. It has two entrances, at Mildred Street and Pearl Street. From I-5, take exit 132 to follow State Route 16 West to the Pearl Street/Ruston exit. Drive north on Pearl Street until you arrive at the Pearl Street entrance (at the roundabout), or turn left on North 51st Street to get to the Mildred Street entrance. Guests are being asked to remain in their cars until five minutes before their ticket time this year.

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