Since its opening in 1974, Riverbanks Zoo and Garden has been one of the Midlands’ top attractions. Throughout the year, families can observe and interact with animals from more than four continents, including lions, tigers, Komodo dragons, tapirs, babirusas, grizzly bears, sea lions, elephants, gorillas, and even an alligator lovingly named “Little Boy.” But every November and December, the holidays draw in visitors who marvel at more than just the incredible animal species who call Riverbanks home.
Lights Before Christmas is one of the city of Columbia’s longest-running holiday events. The zoo reopens at 6 p.m. every night from Nov. 18 to Dec. 30 to allow its guests to enjoy strolling through the zoo, which is illuminated by almost one million holiday lights. A large Christmas tree welcomes in couples, families, and friends, with moving light patterns that change in shapes of animals like fish, birds, and giraffes. Holiday music plays across the facility’s speakers, zoo employees dressed in animal costumes make children laugh, and Santa Claus even appears each night to hear holidays wish lists.
Many of the zoo’s creatures have already gone to sleep for the evening by the time Lights Before Christmas begins, but the zoo makes sure to keep visitors entertained. Fire pits and s’mores ingredients are available, and many photo opportunities have been set up. The majority of the exhibits, including the sea lion house and the petting zoo, actually stay open, just in case any of the animals decide to stay up and entertain guests.
Admission to Lights Before Christmas is $11 for adults, $9 for children ages 2 to 12, and free for children younger than 2. Riverbanks Zoo members receive one free visit to Lights Before Christmas.