Cincinnati Zoo's Festival of Lights Wins Best Zoo Lights!


Toledo Zoo, Detroit Zoo, Indianapolis Zoo and Columbus Zoo also winners

When the sun goes down and the animals go to bed for the night, these 10 U.S. zoos celebrate the season with stunning displays of holiday lights. We asked USA TODAY 10Best readers to vote for their favorite zoo lights from a pool of 20 nominees, and after four weeks of voting, the results are in!

  • Festival of Lights at the Cincinnati Zoo

    A train ride, fairyland, black-light puppet show and gingerbread village are just a few of the features at the PNC Festival of Lights at the Cincinnati Zoo. Frozen fans will freak out at the new Frozen Wonderland area, where “everyone’s favorite royal sisters” will be waiting. Visitors can also see live performances, meet Santa and Mrs. Claus and participate in an interactive scavenger hunt.
    Photo courtesy of Cassandre Crawford/Cincinnati Zoo

  • Lights Before Christmas at the Toledo Zoo
    Toledo, Ohio

    The Toledo Zoo is celebrating the 30th anniversary of its annual Lights Before Christmas celebration in 2015. In honor of the big anniversary, highlights include model trains, ice carvings, carolers, plenty of food and, of course, Santa Claus. What makes Lights Before Christmas really stand out is its three-lane ice slide and multiple carousels. Visitors can warm up in the theater with a show by Douglas the Talking Tree and share the spirit with various groups of carolers.
    Photo courtesy of Toledo Zoo

  • Wild Lights at the Detroit Zoo

    At this holiday lights festival, visitors can slide down a 22-foot-tall slide called the Polar Plunge and see “The Polar Express” in a 4-D theater. Welcome to Wild Lights, an annual celebration at the Detroit Zoo in Michigan. The zoo is completely transformed with more than five million LED lights and more than 100 illuminated animal sculptures. Wild Lights also brings live entertainment, ice carving, food, photos with Santa and various arts and crafts activities.
    Photo courtesy of Mark Gaskill

  • Christmas at the Indianapolis Zoo

    Christmas at the Zoo at the Indianapolis Zoo claims to be the first zoo lights festival in the nation, starting in 1967. Since then, the event has grown, and it continues to be a leader in offerings, including a 4-D theater, train rides, presentations, shows, carolers and a carousel. Animal lovers will be thrilled to know some of the critters will attend the festival, including a polar bear, walrus, sea lions, red panda, brown bears and seals. Christmas at the Zoo is illuminated entirely by LED light displays, making it more environmentally friendly.
    Photo courtesy of Indianapolis Zoo

  • Wildlights at the Columbus Zoo
    Columbus, Ohio

    Visitors can walk through the Columbus Zoo on paths illuminated by multicolored lights, during the annual Wildlights celebration. Millions of LED lights turn the zoo into a rainbow, set to the tune of music. Guests can see three different musicals, choreographed light shows, meet Santa and Mrs. Claus and even see real reindeer. Although many of the animals are asleep, this provides a rare glimpse into the lives of nocturnal critters. Add hot chocolate, a warm pretzel and candy canes, available at booths throughout.
    Photo courtesy of Grahm S. Jones / Columbus Zoo

  • Zoo Lights at the Memphis Zoo

    Tennessee’s getting snowy. Visitors can find snow at the Memphis Zoo’s annual Zoo Lights celebration. While the zoo grounds are set into a colorful, twinkling display of thousands of LED lights, visitors can pay a visit to real reindeer, say hi to Santa in his workshop, ride camels, go ice skating and even see some animals on exhibit in the aquarium and herpetarium. One signature activity at Zoo Lights is to walk through the dramatic, 200-foot-long tunnel of lights. Also, don’t miss the 90-foot illuminated ferris wheel.
    Photo courtesy of Memphis Zoo

  • ZooLights at the Phoenix Zoo

    Visitors can see millions of holiday lights and hundreds of different displays at the Phoenix Zoo’s ZooLights festival. Walk past 3D light sculptures of tigers and stingrays, watch moving light shows set to music, witness ice sculptors in action and ride a carousel – or camel. Some animals will be out to celebrate with guests, including stingrays in the “touch tank.” The zoo is the largest privately owned, nonprofit zoo in the country.
    Photo courtesy of Phoenix Zoo

  • ZooLights at the Smithsonian National Zoo
    Washington, D.C.

    With this much light and excitement, it’s hard to imagine an environmentally friendly lights display, but the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington strives for it, during its annual ZooLights celebration. More than half a million environmentally friendly LED lights fill the zoo. Visitors can ride the solar-powered carousel, which teaches about the zoo’s research and success. Also catch live performances and say hello to the nocturnal animals. Kids can also check out the Land of Legos and adults can squeeze in some holiday shopping, at this famous home of the giant pandas.
    Photo courtesy of Jim Jenkins/Smithsonian's National Zoo

  • Lights Before Christmas at the Riverbanks Zoo
    Columbia, S.C.

    The Riverbanks Zoo's Lights Before Christmas claims to be Columbia’s longest-running holiday tradition, spanning more than 25 years. At this annual event, the zoo glows with lights and animated images, while Santa visits with guests in his village. Visitors can gather around the bonfire and sip hot chocolate and eat warm marshmallows, or father around the 20-foot-tall Christmas tree that “dances” to holiday music. Many animals will be snoozing, but some of the night owls stay awake for the party, and some indoor exhibits remain open.
    Photo courtesy of Riverbanks Zoo and Garden

  • L.A. Zoo Lights at the Los Angeles Zoo
    Los Angeles

    While most of the living animals at the L.A. Zoo sleep the night away, electric, glowing animal displays take over the grounds, during the annual L.A. Zoo Lights event. Visitors can walk past impressive 3D projections, lasers and lights, as the entire zoo is transformed into a glowing, cheerful exhibit, complete with a water show and music. Visitors may even get a chance to meet Santa with his real reindeer.
    Photo courtesy of Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association

Ohio certainly knows how to light up the night during the holiday season – three of the top five zoos hail from the Buckeye State – and it was the Cincinnati Zoo's PNC Festival of Lights that took home top honors.

The top 10 winners in the category Best Zoo Lights are as follows:

  1. Festival of Lights at the Cincinnati Zoo
  2. Lights Before Christmas at the Toledo Zoo
  3. Wild Lights at the Detroit Zoo
  4. Christmas at the Indianapolis Zoo
  5. Wildlights at the Columbus Zoo
  6. Zoo Lights at the Memphis Zoo
  7. ZooLights at the Phoenix Zoo
  8. ZooLights at the Smithsonian National Zoo
  9. Lights Before Christmas at the Riverbanks Zoo
  10. L.A. Zoo Lights at the Los Angeles Zoo

10Best Local Experts and Editors picked the initial 20 nominees, and the top 10 winners were determined by popular vote. Additional zoos nominated for Best Zoo Lights included the Denver Zoo, Houston Zoo, Jacksonville Zoo, Lincoln Park Zoo, Oakland Zoo, Oregon Zoo, Point Defiance Zoo, San Diego Zoo, St. Louis Zoo and Woodland Park Zoo.

Congratulations to all of our zoo winners!

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