A family favorite among holiday traditions in Columbus

A family favorite among holiday traditions in Columbus

An evening stroll through Columbus Zoo and Aquarium in the cool winter air, hot chocolate in hand, is becoming the most popular Christmas tradition in Central Ohio. And what's not to like about 3 million colorful lights illuminating your way from North America to Asia Quest and beyond? Yearly attendance is more than 400,000 from mid-November through early January. The impressive spectacle requires nearly a year of planning and execution as various departments within the zoo come together to brainstorm and build on the success of the previous year.

It's about keeping yearly favorites and adding fresh and exciting new attractions, says Jeff Glorioso, director of experimental marketing at the zoo. Lighted trees throughout the grounds, a visit with Santa at the gingerbread-themed Santaland Zoo in Jungle Jack's Landing or a twirl around the holiday ice-skating rink near Entry Village are just a few of the regular highlights. But the zoo staff is always working to make the guest experience even better, Glorioso says. "We take things that work and try to embellish them every year." That includes new themes to displays and careful attention to the highly popular animated musical light shows that take place every 15 minutes at Conservation Lake. It's these details that help Wildlights feel fresh but familiar each year, Glorioso says.

In addition to lights, there's always a chance to see the animals-both indoors and out. Elephants and rhinos can be viewed, and the reindeer habitat in the North American region is a popular viewing spot this time of year. But if you're hoping to see polar bears, gorillas or bonobos, Glorioso says to plan your visit before 4 p.m. while these animals are awake and available for viewing.

Although inclement weather makes viewing outdoor animals difficult, Discovery Reef, Manatee Coast, the Reptile Building and the Bob and Evelyn Roadhouse Nocturnal Building are among those open for indoor viewing.

There are also plenty of other indoor attractions to provide respite from a bitter winter chill. Whimsical displays such as the recent "Tinseltown: A Pop Culture Christmas" exhibit housed in Asia Quest give visitors an opportunity to experience the many ways holidays are celebrated and enjoyed in our culture and around the world.

"We love to give back to the community," says Glorioso. Not to mention it is also an important funding opportunity to help the zoo feed and care for the animals during what might otherwise be a stagnant time of year.

While Central Ohioans may not always get the name right, calling it "Zoo Lights" or "Holiday Lights at the Zoo," one thing is certain: It's a beloved holiday tradition for many. "Regardless of what the people in the community call it … they're always talking about, 'Oh, we go every year,'" says Glorioso.