Indianapolis Zoo Brings Holiday Cheer to Central Indiana

The holiday season is in full swing as the Indianapolis Zoo hosts their annual Christmas at the Zoo event, located downtown at The Indianapolis Zoo, 1200 W. Washington Street. Around 100,000 people are expected to take part in this year’s event.

“Our record attendance during Christmas at the Zoo was 101,700 guests set in 2012,” Indianapolis Zoo PR Specialist Carla Knapp said. “We have been very close to those numbers in the years since then.”

The zoo also receives help from local sponsors and vendors to make Christmas at the Zoo a reality. “Through Teachers Credit Union’s partnership with the Indianapolis Zoo, we are able to help bring thousands of people who enjoy the exhibit each year,” Tara Holloway, Vice President of Marketing and Research at TCU, said. “We also sell discounted tickets at all of our central Indiana locations.”

Christmas at the Zoo has been a long-lasting holiday tradition in the Hoosier state. The zoo first started their holiday lights event 48 years ago in 1967. Back then, the zoo was opened on the city’s east side as a children’s zoo. At the time, the zoo only held 20 acres of land. Now, the zoo sits on 64 acres of land. It moved locations to the White River State Park in Downtown Indianapolis 1988 with the capacity of holding five times the amount of animals.

“I remember going and seeing the lights when I was really little,” Indianapolis native Cynthia Bockover, 59, said. “I had to have been about eight or nine years old. My mom took me and my five brothers and sisters.” The then smaller zoo was the first zoo in the United States to hold a holiday lights event. “The lights were so pretty. I thought it was the neatest thing in the world, to have a zoo lit up light that.”

The holiday festivities begin around 5 p.m., allowing for the sun to set and the lights to start glowing and setting the holiday mood. The 100-percent LED lights experience is presented by Peyton Manning’s Children’s Hospital at St. Vincent. “The lights are my favorite part of the entire thing,” Randy Lagle, 24, of Southport said. “Coming to the zoo to see the lights is the one holiday tradition my family and I have. They are completely gorgeous, eco-friendly, and the atmosphere really sets the tone for the holiday season.”

The zoo has strings of lights set up all around the zoo, but they also have several dancing displays to add to the festive atmosphere. Some of the displays include We Three Kings, presented by Central Indiana Honda Dealers, and the All-A-Glow Light Show. If your feet get tired, DAMAR Services has partnered with the zoo to host the White River Junction train which travels around the zoo for a spectacular view of the entire event, including some behind the scenes views you can only get from the train.

“If I don’t get to ride the train at the zoo, I feel like I haven’t really experienced anything,” Greenwood native Jonathon Williams, 26, says. “Coming to Christmas at the Zoo and seeing the events and festivities is a wonder in itself, but if I don’t get to ride the train at the end of the night I feel like my night isn’t complete.”

For the second year in a row, The Indianapolis Zoo has been nominated for USA Today’s 10Best Zoo Lights Competition. Last year, the Zoo took 4th place. The Indianapolis Zoo is up against nine other Zoos from all around the United States in a race to determine who has the best light show. “We are very excited to be nominated for a second-straight year,” Knapp said. “Christmas at the Zoo is a beloved holiday tradition for families across Central Indiana, and it is a testament to the hard work of our dedicated staff and volunteers to receive this wonderful recognition. The USA Today nomination is helping us share our tradition with families across the country.”

The lights aren’t the only thing that people can experience at the zoo, as the animals are also out showing their holiday spirit. “We always come a little early so we can see the animals before it gets too crowded,” Tiffany Browne, 39, of Whiteland said. “I come out here with my four boys every year, and we drink hot chocolate and walk around the entire zoo to see the animals and lights together.”

Many of the Zoo’s animals are adapted to Indiana winter weather. “Species like our California sea lions, Pacific Walrus, Amur Tigers, Alaskan brown bears, red pandas, and many others are native to colder climates and can be more active in winter than during the summer,” Knapp said. The other animals have exhibits that help them adjust to the cold temperatures. “For instance, one of the rocks inside the Tiger Forest is heated to give our tigers a warm, dry spot to lie down. Also, the pools in our marine mammal exhibits are temperature regulated for the animals’ comfort.” Additionally, animal keeper chats throughout the day help keep the Christmas Spirit alive.

Aside from the animals and LED light experience, there are many other activities available for people to do during their visit. Walking around the zoo, visitors might come across Christmas Carolers singing a variety of Christmas and other holiday songs. “We have multiple groups that we work with to provide festive, live music during the event,” Knapp said. “The Common Stock Carolers are a wonderful duo of Victorian Carolers who take requests and sing traditional favorites. We also have school choirs that come from around central Indiana to perform.”

“When we need to take a break we stop and find some Christmas Carolers to watch,” Browne said. “I try to get my kids to sing along. It’s a nice way to just stop and take a breather.”

If Christmas Carolers aren’t your style, the Zoo also hosts its daily dolphin show. Located in the Dolphin Pavillion/Marine Mammals exhibit, the show is decked with Christmas theming and music. Trained dolphins dance to music and do many other tricks, such as jumping in the air and going through hoops, and presenting themselves to the audience. Trainers guide the show and interact with the dolphins and audience, making it an entertaining experience.

“I always go to the first dolphin show of the night,” Casey Carson, 24, of Southport said. “My friends always want to sit in the splash zone, which is the closest seating to the show, but you have a very high chance of getting splashed by the dolphins,” he laughed. “If you have never sat there, I highly recommend doing it at least once. Maybe not in the winter, but at least once during a visit.”

The exhibit also features a 30-foot diameter, 12-foot high underwater viewing dome in the center of the main pool, the first of its kind in the country. “The dolphins swim around you and above you, it’s really cool,” Carson said. “When I was younger we took an overnight field trip and slept in that area. It was probably my favorite field trip.”

Beyond the dolphin show, the zoo also hosts many other activities, including pictures with Santa, cookie decorating with Mrs. Claus, a 4-D Movie Theater, a scavenger hunt, and even a family roller coaster. Plus, visitors who find hidden mistletoe that has been place throughout the zoo have a chance to win an Animal Art Adventure, a behind the scenes experience to meet animals that will create a personalized painting for you.

“This year, TCU will have a booth set up on various nights in the White River Gardens, where Santa Claus is located,” Holloway said. “We’ll be passing out candy and TCU swag and just spreading holiday cheer. We also have a penguin photo opportunity that’s set up in the Ocean’s building and it continues to be a big hit with the kids.”

Christmas at the Zoo is a holiday event filled with sights to see and things to do, with plenty of days to do it. Open 28 nights, the zoo opens at 12 p.m. until 9 p.m., and is open November 25–27, December 1–4, December 7–11, December 14–23, and December 26–30. “Visiting the zoo in the wintertime is really like nothing else you’ll experience here at any other time of the year,” Knapp said. Christmas at the Zoo is a holiday tradition that Hoosiers will continue to experience for years to come. “It’s been a tradition for 48 years, and we’ve seen multiple generations of families who come year after year to experience this event, first with children and then with grandchildren,” Knapp said. “It’s those opportunities for family experiences that make our event so memorable.”