Come out of hibernation for winter fun at the zoo

Most visitors think of the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Gardens as a fair weather destination, but this local treasure offers appealing activities all year long, from popular events like the PNC Festival of Lights to the lesser-known Penguin Days, which features penguin parades and half-priced admission tickets.

36th annual PNC Festival of Lights

When: Nov. 17–Jan. 1., Sun.–Thurs. until 9 p.m.; Fri.–Sat. until 10 p.m.


What: The zoo transforms into a winter wonderland with three million LED lights. Walk through light tunnels and around colorful gardens; enjoy the “Wild Lights” show on Swan Lake; indulge at the Smores-n-More stands; ride the BB & Toyland Express; wonder through fairyland.

And if the cold becomes too biting, the zoo offers various indoor amusements, such as the Madcap black light puppet show and indoor animal exhibits.

Meet and greet with Santa begins at 4 p.m. and activities begin at 5 p.m.

The PNC Festival of lights is included with zoo admission

Hints: Arrive before 4 p.m. or after 8 p.m. to avoid traffic, purchase tickets beforehand, and know where to go.

Events manager Kim Denzler advises to dress warm and bring a blanket.


10th annual Happy Zoo Year

When: Mon., Dec. 31 from 5–9 p.m.

What: A New Year celebration for the whole family featuring a Rozzi fireworks show; meet and greet with Father Time and Baby Zoo Year; and Madcap Puppet show “Winter Wonders.”

Denzler says this event is very family friendly because they can celebrate the New Year and be home by ten.


Penguin Days

When: Jan. 2–March 8

What: Half-priced admission tickets give visitors a chance to see some cold weather animals in their element. The penguins, polar bears, and elephants enjoy entertaining enrichment activities.

The popular Penguin Parades take place Fri.–Mon. at 11 a.m. and 2:30 p.m., when the penguins walk from the bird house to the children’s zoo. Denzler says this is a special treat for visitors because they can walk along with the birds.

The weather, however, must be below 50 degrees for many of the cold-weather creatures to come out.

“Our wolves like the cold, and so do the red pandas,” says Denzler. “They especially like the snow.” 

While most animals go inside during the cold weather, there is still plenty to see in indoor exhibits including cats, reptiles, manatees, and birds.

There are even more opportunities for special animals encounters with snakes, tortoises, birds, and other small animals, giving visitors a chance to see another, quieter, side of the zoo.

Denzler explains that this is the time to visit places like the indoor gorilla habitat to really take time interacting at the windows.

Of the many advantages to visiting one of the most renowned zoos in the country, the shifting seasons in Cincinnati gives the opportunity to see various sides of the zoo to enjoy year-round.
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Read more articles by Emily Dillingham.

Emily Dillingham is a Cincinnati native and University of Cincinnati graduate with degrees in English and Geology. She writes full-time for a local material science company and lives in Brighton with her husband and pack of dogs. Follow her on Instagram @keeperoftheplants