There are two types of people in the world: Those who are mesmerized by colored, blinking lights, and those who would rather stay inside and watch “South Park.” My husband is a member of the latter group, so I headed to ZooLights — the National Zoo’s free holiday light display running through Jan. 1 — by myself one recent evening, and my solo status did not pass unnoticed.
“Awwww, you couldn’t get anyone to come with you?” said the ticket-taker for the National Zoo Choo Choo, a steam engine that chugs around a three-minute loop, offering “gorgeous views of the holiday light displays,” according to the ZooLights program. I was hoping for a spot with a nice family in one of the enclosed cars, but the driver directed me to sit alone, in a shallow, open-air trough.
“She’s all by herself,” he said to no one in particular, before taking off. As the train trundled through crowds of onlookers, I felt like part of the show. “If you look in the first car, you’ll see a lonely spinster,” my imaginary announcer said. “Watch her smile through her tears.”
My eyes were just watering from the cold, I swear! In any case, I enjoyed the $3 ride in my open-air car — especially the blue tunnel of lights at the beginning. After that, though, the displays petered out, and the tour became mostly one of parking lots and maintenance roads. Elsewhere in the zoo, there were plenty of lights on display — 500,000 in all, according to the program.
The first lights I encountered, while entering the zoo from the west side, were the ones on dozens of trees wrapped in traditional, single-color strands. What these illuminations lack in innovation, they make up for in simple beauty. I love how they highlight the intricate architecture of trunks and branches. I was less impressed with the two-dimensional wire animals that also line the zoo’s main path — but that’s just me. Kids seemed to love looking for illuminated versions of their favorite critters.
“Look, Jack, a squid! You love squid!” I overheard one woman say to her toddler, a kid with a bright future in either marine biology or culinary arts. One wire animal left everyone a bit baffled. “Is it a map of the world?” one woman asked. “It’s mountains,” someone else offered. Eventually a zoo employee happened by. “It’s an anteater,” he said. “See the termite mound?”
Around then, music started playing, and it wasn’t what anyone was expecting. “Oh, good, I was hoping to hear ‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy,’ because that’s my favorite Christmas song,” one sassy 20-something remarked. The music eventually morphed into traditional holiday tunes, which soundtracked a light show where lasers traced flying birds and running elephants on the outside of a zoo building. The official description of the show, “Watch animals come to life,” struck me as odd, since aren’t animals usually alive? At least, they are in your better zoos.
Around the corner from the light show were signs pointing to ZooLights’ newest addition, the Gingerbread Village. To get there, you have to walk a dark pathway flanked with trees lit from beneath — a display rather reminiscent of Melania Trump’s 2017 Christmas decorations. I recall it looking strange in the White House, but the effect is fantastic outdoors. I felt like I was traveling through an enchanted winter forest — that is, until I got to the Gingerbread Village.
The problem with the Gingerbread Village is that there’s no gingerbread — just plastic gingerbread-style props. People gamely took pictures sitting on a gingerbread throne and standing next to a large gingerbread man, but I think we all would have preferred actual cookies.
Happily, there were plenty of sweets on sale at food trucks and cafes scattered around the zoo. There’s also wine and beer, which I’ve stood in hourlong lines to buy in past years. This year, I was able to procure both in under five minutes. (Don’t judge.) If I’d had anyone with me, I would have also gotten a s’mores kit. A zoo eatery was selling them for $11 near open-flame grills, where some kids were carefully toasting their marshmallows, while other, better kids set theirs on fire.
A little farther along the path, I found three grates belching great clouds of steam. People huddled around them, enjoying the humid warmth while watching beams of light filter through the condensation.
“Is this supposed to be here?” one woman asked, wondering if the steam grates were a ZooLights display. They aren’t, but maybe they should be. “This is my favorite part,” one kid said of the zoo’s industrial infrastructure.
As for my favorite part, I found it just before leaving for the night: Panda Claws, the zoo’s costumed mascot, was whirling around on a carnival ride on the eastern side of the zoo. He seemed to be having a great time mugging for the crowd, and guess what? He was all by himself, too.
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