Have you been to the Oregon Zoo lately? If not, then drive, bike, or MAX-train it on over there! It’s the perfect time for a family outing: Over a million lights are sparkling up the zoo for ZooLights through January 1! And the holiday-light animals are incredible: peacocks, crocodiles, hippos, Chinese dragons, and more.
You might be worried your toddler/baby/troupe-of-monkeys will be overwhelmed outside in the dark with hundreds of people past bed time. But fear not! You’ll be fine as long as you follow a few family-friendly guidelines.
1. Go early. Get to the zoo before ZooLights begins. The website says it starts at 5, but we arrived at 4. The lights were already on, parking was a cinch, there was no line to get in AND no line at the hot chocolate stand.* By 4:30 pm it was dark–perfect for enjoying the lights. When we left at 5:15, longer lines were starting to form and parking was getting more difficult.
*The zoo’s hot chocolate is made from adding cocoa/sugar powder to hot water. However they do use whipped cream on top. If you’re hankering for a good hot cocoa, I would recommend getting a flavored milk steamer and asking for whip.
2. Avoid the weekend if possible, but if you can’t then: Arrive by 4 pm to get parking (if driving), or take the MAX train. Don’t rely on the overflow parking and zoo shuttle. Friends got stuck at the overflow lot with a toddler and without a shuttle for 45 minutes before calling it a day and heading home.
3. Do the train first. Also, buy your tickets with your admission at the main entrance (or you’ll face another line at the train depot). The train can be MADNESS! If your toddler doesn’t really care about the train, then skip it. But if your toddler is train-obsessed (like K-Pants), then get in line pronto. Trains start running at 5 pm. We got in line at 4:40 when we went on the weekend. Even though we waited for twenty minutes to get on the train, that was nothing compared to the hour-plus line that had formed by the time we got off.
4. Bring snacks. Don’t rely on the zoo food spots because the lines can be crazy.* Plus, you’ll want to have a cache of snacks and treats to calm the toddler beast during the long train line.
*Also, the food options at the zoo aren’t great. I hear the Cascade Grill is good, but a little too fancy for my chaos team. I’m hoping the zoo will do an overhaul on the items at the casual Africafe (hint, hint). Currently, the offerings at the Africafe look like they’ve been frozen and shipped in from a school cafeteria in Ohio.
5. Dress warmer than you think you’ll need to. It gets cold at night up in Washington Park. Long underwear is seriously not a bad option–especially if you’ll be sitting on the train. We also packed fleece blankets in the stroller that we put over our legs during the train ride.
6. Don’t miss the concert lawn! It’s filled with animated animal displays, including an amazing crocodile in a river scene. Plus, the real elephants next to the lawn look super majestic at night.
7. Get free fudge. The fudge at the gift shop is delicious and homemade at the zoo! During ZooLights, if you have an old string of holiday lights that’s weathered one too many Christmases, you can recycle it in the gift shop and in return they’ll give you a free piece of homemade fudge. You bring broken lights; the Zoo gives you fudge. What’s not to love about that?