Like so many other things, they will be different in a pandemic. Brookside Gardens’ Garden of Lights is among the annual favorites that have been canceled, while the National Zoo’s ZooLights has taken to the streets. Drive-through light displays, which allow visitors to stay safely in their cars, have become more popular — the Mormon temple’s Festival of Lights, which opens this weekend, is drive-through for the first time in its 43-year history — and walk-through events are strictly limiting attendance to comply with laws and make guests feel more comfortable.
Either way, these displays will add some much-needed brightness to your holiday season.
Festival of Lights
Watkins Regional Park’s 34-year-old light display provides the best kind of seasonal overload. From the moment cars pass through the gates, there is something bright, colorful and probably flashing to stare at every few feet, such as a giant blue crab clutching a candy cane, or Santa and a reindeer swatting a volleyball back and forth. (Sports is a popular theme among the almost 200 displays, with animated scenes of Santa slam-dunking a basketball, tossing a baseball and scoring a soccer penalty kick.) Cars pass through tunnels of rainbow lights and watch as Santa fires presents from a cannon, which arch overhead and “land” in a sack on the other side of the road.
This keeps going for three miles of road, through traffic circles and parking lots, and finally reaches the centerpiece: a 54-foot tree covered with 200,000 LED lights. Roll down your windows as you get close, and you’ll hear festive music, such as “Ding Dong Merrily on High” as the colors change and pulse. (You probably will only hear part of one song — traffic keeps moving at a slow-by-steady clip through the park, and there’s no room to pull over and stop.)
Some displays are more wintry than holiday-focused — penguins skipping rope, polar bears reeling in glowing orange fish — and others have a more local charm. Most parents are probably aware that Watkins Park has a large “Wizard of Oz"-themed playground, and the characters show up in 16 light displays, including a flashing tornado (carrying away a cow), and an installation of Dorothy and Toto with a blinking “There’s No Place Like Home.” Don’t be surprised if you find yourself planning to visit again, just so you can catch everything you missed the first time through.
Watkins Regional Park, 301 Watkins Park Dr., Upper Marlboro. pgparks.com. Open daily from 5 to 9:30 p.m. through Jan. 1. Individual tickets, which can be used at any time, are $8 ($10 at the gate), and up to $30 per vehicle. Masks required when interacting with park personnel.
Winter Walk of Lights
Located not far from several large retail hubs, including Tysons Corner, Meadowlark Botanical Gardens is a refuge, both calming and festive, from the rush of holiday shopping. The Vienna light show typically attracts locals who pack the parking lot, eager to stroll around the grounds adorned in the blinking colored lights of the season.
Because of the pandemic, entry is staggered in 15-minute intervals to keep foot traffic moving and avoid bottlenecks. If you feel safer around smaller crowds, set time aside on a weeknight, as the light show is open nightly. There’s a charming mix of preprogrammed flickering lights, a tree with lights that glow in response to your caroling and elaborate drapes of light strung atop the garden’s foliage — or, in one case, to evoke toadstool mushrooms. If you look in the distance, you can even see the top of Meadowlark’s stunning Korean Bell Pavilion, adorned in a few seasonally appropriate lights.
One of the plusses of being able to walk around is getting lured into the Sips, Sweets and Sparkles pop-up snack shack. You can sip on hot cocoa with a jumbo marshmallow, whipped cream or all of the above (while also, oddly, considering the purchase of a glowing toy Minecraft-style sword — or, a bit more grimly, a light-up rechargeable face mask.)
Meadowlark Botanical Gardens, 9750 Meadowlark Gardens Court, Vienna. novaparks.com/events/winter-walk-of-lights. Open nightly from 5 to 10 p.m. through Jan. 3; the last admission is at 9:15 p.m. Timed-entry tickets are $11.25-$20 (advance tickets required).
The weekend after Thanksgiving, when the National Zoo (currently closed because of the pandemic) unveiled a replacement for its popular annual holiday light show — a traveling 24-foot truck featuring a panda-themed light display and a person in a panda suit (“Panda Claws”) waving from a 1960s-style go-go cage — there were some bumps in the road. The truck did not necessarily follow the exact route posted on the zoo’s website. Nor did it start at the intersection marked as location A, and proceed alphabetically, as you might expect. Instead, families that chose to gather along the route — a different itinerary, in a different ward of the city, every Friday and Saturday night — encountered either long waits in the cold or missed the truck entirely.
Since its debut, however, the zoo has attempted to address the problems, creating a live link to Google Maps that allows you follow, in real time, the truck’s progress as it makes multiple loops, obeying all traffic regulations, but otherwise barely stopping, through its posted rounds (or something approximating them). Still, given the inconvenience of hooking up with this roving display — more elusive than Santa — it might be best to go about your business and cross your fingers that you might, just might, cross its path unintentionally: a true holiday miracle.
ZooLights Express continues on Fridays and Saturdays from 6 to 8 p.m. through Dec. 19, with the following schedule: Ward 5 ( Dec. 11); Ward 6 ( Dec. 12); Ward 7 (Dec. 18); and Ward 8 (Dec. 19). Route maps and a link to a real-time route-tracker are available at nationalzoo.si.edu/events/zoolights. Free.
Ice and Lights: The Winter Village at Cameron Run
There could be a reason the lights get second billing in the title of this Alexandria holiday light display/skating rink. The number of dazzling light displays is meager, at best, compared with some other local alternatives. (Bizarrely, several of the spots I visited featured light-up turtles — were they on sale? — even some that do not operate as water parks in warmer weather, as this one does.) Here, the layout is divided into discrete picture-taking stations, including a sleigh — fit for two to four people — and a Christmas tree, hollowed out like a tepee.
Thankfully, the ice half makes it worth the trip. The park keeps a tight schedule, ensuring that skaters get a full hour on the ice in before being whisked off so that the rink can be resurfaced — and all this before members of the next group are even allowed to grab a pair of skates. It never feels too crowded, and benches are well spaced to maintain social distancing while lacing up before gliding onto the ice, with or without a helpful “training whale” — a sturdy plastic aid for very young or novice skaters — in tow.
Given the fact that several area rinks, including the National Gallery of Art’s, remain closed due to the pandemic, this may be your best bet to get a good skate in. Perhaps in the future, the Winter Village at Cameron Run will include a few more light displays to gaze upon as you take a spin around the ice.
Cameron Run Regional Park, 4001 Eisenhower Ave., Alexandria. novaparks.com/events/ice-lights. Open Friday-Sunday from 5 to 7:15 p.m., and from 7:45 to 10 p.m. through Jan. 3; also open Dec. 21-24 and 31. Timed-entry tickets are $9.35-$24 (advance tickets required). Masks required for visitors age 5 and older, except while eating or drinking.
Annmarie Garden in Lights
The walk-through display on the 30-acre campus of a Southern Maryland institution dedicated to art is, arguably, less true to the spirit of the holidays than it is to the creative spirit. Mixing seasonal images of candy canes and Christmas trees with such pop-culture icons as Pikachu and the poop emoji, the festively decorated sculpture garden holds a surprise at almost every turn.
Appropriately, because of its proximity to the Chesapeake Bay, there’s an entire installation dedicated to such ocean-themed critters as jellyfish — fashioned from sheets of semi-translucent plastic. One especially lovely and serendipitous display features rows of recycled table lamps, sprouting, like glow-in-the-dark mushrooms, from the soil of the darkened woods.
But that’s not all. The highly Instagrammable light festival features an interactive stage where visitors can pose against a backdrop of colored shadows (cyan, magenta and yellow) as well as some artfully lit art works, of course (including Minoru Niizuma’s “Castle of the Eye,” on loan from the Hirshhorn Museum). Look up; tiny projected lights make it appear as if stars have become caught in the branches of the tallest trees.
Amenities include: a cafe with such snacks as hot dogs, pretzels and hot chocolate; access to an art gallery for those willing to venture indoors; an outdoor children’s play area; and craft vendors hawking knit goods, jewelry, scented candles, handmade masks and more.
Is it worth the 90-minute drive from the District? For this lightshow-starved Washingtonian, it was.
Annmarie Sculpture Garden & Arts Center, 13470 Dowell Rd., Solomons. annmariegarden.org. Open nightly, except Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, from 5 to 9 p.m. through Jan. 1. Timed-entry-tickets are $10-$12; free for members and children 2 and younger (advance tickets required). Masks required for visitors age 3 and older, except while seated and eating or drinking.
Maryland Zoo Lights
The National Zoo’s decision to reformat its popular ZooLights show was mourned by families who’ve made a tradition of visiting the glowing animal displays, and by 20- and 30-somethings in need of a cheap and easy date idea. But anyone seeking a replacement can just look up the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, where the Maryland Zoo at Baltimore’s Zoo Lights spreads a very similar holiday cheer.
The zoo’s timing is perfect: It hasn’t hosted a light display since the late 1990s, so all 50 brightly lit, animal-themed installations are brand-new. Three nights each week, Zoo Lights operates as a drive-through attraction: Cars move at a maximum five miles per hour past the displays, which line the woods on either side of the road: A large purple hippo opens its mouth to bare yellow teeth; a joey pops out of its mother’s pouch; penguins throw snowballs at each other or jump off igloos. So far, so delightful.
The walk-through option, offered on Saturdays and a handful of other nights through Jan. 3, is really the way to go. It’s more expensive — a family of four pays $80 to go on foot, compared with $45 for staying in the car — but more immersive. Visitors follow the same quarter-mile route, but they can stop and take photos in front of favorite displays along the way, or watch favorite animations multiple times. More important, the walk-through experience leads to Zoo Central, where children can climb aboard a giraffe, lion or other animal on the carousel free rides (included with admission), and say hello to a socially distanced Santa under a brightly lit tree. Adults, meanwhile, can browse tables covered with gift ideas, including art created by animals, or grab hot chocolate spiked with rumchata.
But the real kicker, after walking by multiple penguin-themed light displays on a recent Saturday, was that we came face-to-beak with some very curious African penguins, who had ventured out of their building to see what all the fuss was about, and stared at humans from across their pool. The unexpected encounter made the evening that much merrier and brighter.
Maryland Zoo in Baltimore, 1 Safari Pl., Baltimore. marylandzoo.org. Open Wednesday-Sunday through Jan. 3, except for Christmas Day. Drive-through hours: Wednesdays and Thursdays from 5 to 7 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays from 5 to 8 p.m. Walk-through hours: 4:30 to 7:30 p.m. Saturdays, as well as Dec. 21-22 and Jan. 1 and 3. Drive-through admission $45 per car. Walk-through admission $20 per visitors ages 2 and older (advance tickets required). Car passengers ages 2 and older must wear masks when interacting with zoo personnel. Walkers ages 2 and older must wear masks except when eating or drinking.
Winter Lights Festival
While many winter light shows have had to cancel and/or scale back their plans, Gaithersburg’s annual lights festival has been virtually pandemic-proof for a quarter of a century. Organizers of the popular light display — which has been a drive-through event since its inception in 1995 — may have been hoping to ring in the 25th anniversary on a more festive note, but the years were not in vain: The roughly 3½ -mile course offers a holiday haven in the covid era.
You can probably expect the line that snakes along Clopper Road to be even longer this year, as the number of other local options has dwindled because of the pandemic. Recently, the city of Gaithersburg sent out an alert that patrons should expect an “excessively long wait,” particularly during the next two weekends. If you have flexibility, however, tickets can be purchased for unspecified weekdays or weekends, with no set entry time or date. Anyone patient enough to sit in bumper-to-bumper traffic will be treated to a charmingly thought-out show, with enough wonderment for the many kids (and adults) whose heads you can be sure will pop up from sunroofs, like so many bundled-up jack-in-the-boxes.
There’s not a ton of pizazz here to convert light-show skeptics, and the drive swings between the cheerfully recognizable and — spoiler alert — an animated bear springboarding into a honey pot. (That one might have you wracking your brain to figure out how it ties in with the holiday season.) What a wonderfully, er, eclectic way to end the year.
Seneca Creek State Park, 11950 Clopper Rd., Gaithersburg. gaithersburgmd.gov. Open Sundays through Thursdays, beginning at 6 p.m., with last entry at 9 p.m., through Dec. 31; open Fridays and Saturdays beginning at 6 p.m.; with last entry at 10 p.m. Closed Christmas Day. Admission is $12-$25 on Sundays through Thursdays; $17-$25 on Fridays and Saturdays (advance tickets required). Drivers required to wears a mask at the admission booth.