Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium is starting an extra special holiday tradition, and it’s bigger than any holiday event I’ve seen them do yet. Zoolightful, sponsored by Chesterman Co. Coca-Cola, runs from Nov. 17 to Dec. 30, 2023. It’s a nighttime experience with huge light displays, characters (and yes, Santa), and tasty treats. And yes, it’s as awesome as it sounds!
Disclosure: I received media passes to attend a preview of Zoolightful. All thoughts, opinions and typos are my own. This post may contain affiliate links.
Why all the excitement?
Think of a night of Zoolightful as the zoo, but with a festive twist. More activities, more popular characters, and a lot of whimsical settings. There’s the Polar Plaza where you can whoosh down a giant ice slide (I’m definitely trying that!), and then there’s Holiday Way, which is basically a walk through a giant twinkling light paradise.
And that’s just the start! They’ve got everything from a Merry Magic Theater with a Frozen adventure (hello, Olaf fans!) to a Gingerbread Village where you can get crafty. Plus, there are themed igloos for a chill hangout spot. And of course, what’s a holiday event without Santa making appearances? He’s there nearly every night!
Related post: 40+ tips for visiting Omaha’s zoo!
What to expect
Zoolightful runs Nov. 17 – Dec. 30, 2023 from 6 to 9 p.m. Sunday through Wednesday and 6 to 10 p.m. Thursday through Saturday. You can visit the zoo, as usual, during the day and have the typical zoo experience (though you will get to see the displays, just not lit).
The real magic occurs after 6 p.m. when the lights turn on, the lanterns are aglow, and the interactive attractions open up. After 6 p.m., you’ll need a Zoolightful ticket to get into the zoo.
The event features immersive lands, each offering unique and enchanting experiences. Most of the experiences are included with the price of the Zoolightful ticket; though, some are an additional fee. The amount of activities are probably more than you could do in one evening, and it’s very likely you’ll want to return more than once this season.
There are a few days that you cannot attend Zoolightful, because the zoo is closed (ie. holidays) or because of events not open to the general public. Zoolightful is closed on:
- Thanksgiving on Thursday, Nov. 23 (Zoo closed)
- Christmas Eve on Sunday, Dec. 24
- Christmas Day on Monday, Dec. 25 (Zoo closed)
For ages 21+: Late Nights at the Zoo: Zoolightful Edition will be held on Thursdays, Dec. 7 and 14, from 7 to 10:30 p.m. Eat, drink and be merry while enjoying the holiday delight of Zoolightful, local food truck cuisine and bars. The theme for Dec. 7 is Ugly Sweater Night and the theme for Dec. 14 is Carol-oke Night. Each night includes a giveaway for an igloo during a select Zoolightful evening.
Outdoor activities during Zoolightful
Dress warmly because you are not going to want to miss all of these fun outdoor activities planned.
Polar Plaza is the first place you’ll likely visit when you enter the zoo. The showcase of the Polar Plaza is the exhilarating 20-foot, four-lane ice slide. It’s not really ice, obviously, but a slick surface that makes for a fun tube ride. It’s an additional fee: $3 for one ride, $8 for 3 rides, $14.99 for unlimited rides. Kids under a certain height can ride in a double tube with an adult.
The Chill Zone is going to be a fun spot to hang out, especially if your kid has dancing feet. There’s an interactive, light-up dance floor with light-up seating around it. Look for it at the Plaza Café. I don’t think you’ll miss it!
Tip: The Chill Zone will actually be a good place to warm up. It has heaters set up.
For me, the showstopper outdoors is Holiday Way. I walked along the towering light sculptures during the daytime and wanted to take a dozen photos, so I can only imagine how enchanting it will be at night. There will be archways mixed in with giant teddy bears and trees and more.
Reindeer Game Zone sponsored by Holidynamics is located in the Children’s Adventure Trail area, a favorite with my kids during the regular season. During Zoolightful, there will be games intermingling with a walk-through light display. This area is also where you’ll find six igloos for families to reserve for the night. Actually.
Peppermint Pines is an outdoor area with some, technically, indoor opportunities. At Peppermint Pines, six differently themed igloos are set up, each furnished and heated, and each having access to bar and food service from an attendant.
Warm up, get creative, or get pictures with your favorite character during these indoor activities. If you want to see Santa, make a beeline for Santa’s North Pole (otherwise known as the Mutual of Omaha Pavilion). Drop off your holiday wish list at the North Pole post before a complimentary visit and photo with Santa Claus himself.
Tip: Santa is at Santa’s North Pole every night until Dec. 22.
Merry Magic Theater is going to be a must-visit stop if you have “Frozen” fans in your group. Watch “Olaf’s Frozen Adventure” and take part in the interactive merry-making with your box of movie props. Kids will also get to meet some “Frozen” friends. The cost for the movie experience is $14.95 per adult (includes movie and the Meet & Greet) and $19.95 per child (includes movie, the Meet & Greet, and Merry Magic movie props).
In the theater lobby, be on the lookout for the large, red sleigh. It’s the Merry Magic Sleigh Ride, a virtual reality adventure (the sleigh will move!). The cost for the ride is $8.
Tip: The line was very long for the VR sleigh ride the night we went, and they stopped letting people get in line about a half-hour before the event ended. Get in line early if this is something you definitely want to do.
You’ll know you found the Gingerbread Village when you first spot the large gingerbread house on the zoo path. The walkway leading up to the indoor activities is decorated with colorful lanterns in shapes of candy and gingerbread men. Inside, you’ll find a little gift shop where you can purchase a gingerbread house kit. You can buy a traditional kit or a themed kit (like Trolls or Peanuts).
There are tables and chairs set up so you can build the house that night (they’ll hold your house until the end of the evening so you can take it home with you).
Tip: As for a bag to cover your gingerbread house when you’re ready to take it home. They have them up by the cash register where you bought the kits.
Dr. Seuss fans will want to plan some time at the Durham Treetops Restaurant near the Lied Jungle. There will be Grinch-themed activities, along with holiday-themed food and treats. Grinch-y characters will be there on the weekends for Meet & Greets.
Character meet & greets
One thing that’s unique about Zoolightful is the opportunity to meet so many different characters. The Big Guy, Santa, will be there every night through Dec. 22. Find him at Santa’s North Pole. Visiting Santa is included with event admission.
Grinch-y characters will be at the Durham Treetops Restaurant on the weekends. And “Frozen” characters will be at the Merry Magic Theater
Tasty food to try during Zoolightful
Now for one of my favorite parts of any holiday event: The food! The zoo’s culinary team has created an assortment of menu items that are only available during Zoolightful:
Plaza Café (AKA Chill Zone)
- Chili Box (12oz cup of chili w/ crackers, Fritos, shredded cheese, onions, jalapenos, sour cream & cinnamon roll)
- Chicken quesadilla
- Soup & sandwich box
- Snug as a Bug Dog (hot dog wrapped in puff pastry and sprinkled w/ Everything Bagel seasoning)
- Jack Frost Cheesecake (cheesecake on a stick)
- Hot Cocoa
- Flavored Hot Cocoa (cookie butter, cinnamon bun, caramel apple butter, candy corn, gingerbread)
- Spiked Hot Cocoa
- Cranberry Spritzer (alcoholic & non-alcoholic)
- Grilled cheese & soup
- Hot Roast Beef
- Ham & Swiss on pretzel bun
- Fried Chickie Sandwich
- Sides: fries, side salad, hummus, veggies, fruit
- One Fish/Two Fish Parfait (jello w/ whipped cream and gummy fish)
- Thing 1 & Thing 2 Cotton Candy Cup (M&M popcorn topped w/ blue cotton candy)
- Grinch Munch (family sized popcorn w/ chocolate drizzle and M&M’s)
- Lorax Drink (blended orange crème drink)
- Hot Sweet Crème Cocoa
- Fountain drinks
Children’s Adventure Trails (Reindeer Game Zone)
- Hot Cocoa
- Flavored Cocoa
- Night Before Christmas Box (puff pastry franks)
- Santa’s Cookie Cup (cupful of 10 warm cookies)
- Reindeer Chow Snack Cup
An evening in an igloo?!
There are two separate areas where you’ll find igloos available for reservations. The igloos at Peppermint Pines are available for ages 16 and older. The Peppermint Pines igloos each have access to bar and food service from an attendant.
There are eight furnished and heated igloos to choose from at Peppermint Pines, each with a different theme. The themes are: Twinkling Tiki, Frosty & Bright, Tacky Christmas, Candy Land, Fireside Roast & Toast, Christmas Carol-Oke, Mid-Century Merry, and Silver & Gold.
(For me, it would be a toss-up between choosing Candy Land or Tacky Christmas. )
The cost to reserve a Peppermint Pines igloo is $300 Sunday-Wednesday and $350 Thursday – Saturday. In December, they are $350 each night, weekdays and weekends. The cost includes admission to Zoolightful for six people.
The igloos at Reindeer Game Zone are intended for families, so there are no age limits. The cost to reserve the Reindeer Game Zone igloos are $200 Sunday-Wednesday and $250 Thursday – Saturday. The cost includes admission to Zoolightful for six people and ingredients for S’mores for six people. There is a fire pit at the igloo.
Zoolightful will be held Nov. 17 – Dec. 30, 2023 from 6 to 9 p.m. Sunday through Wednesday and 6 to 10 p.m. Thursday through Saturday. Admission rates vary by date, and zoo members receive a discount on select nights. Cost is $16 per child and $20 per adult. On Member Holi-Deal Days, the prize is $8 per child and $10 per adult.
Will we see animals during Zoolightful?
During Zoolightful, guests can go into the aquarium, Desert Dome, Kingdoms of the Night, and the Mutual of Omaha Pavilion.
How many people can fit into an igloo?
The igloos can comfortably seat six people. If your party has more than six people, it’s recommended that you reserve an additional igloo.
If you have a party larger than six and you reserve one igloo, you will need to purchase admission for the additional guests beyond the first six.
Will Zoolightful be open on Thanksgiving or Christmas Eve?
No. The zoo is closed on Thanksgiving Day (Nov. 23) and on Christmas Day (Dec. 25). Zoolighful will also be closed on Christmas Eve, Dec. 24.