An Amazing Evening at the Lights Before Christmas at the Riverbanks Zoo & Garden in Columbia, SC

Learn why the Lights Before Christmas at the Riverbanks Zoo was one of the most impressive light displays I had ever seen.

Written by

Jason Barnette


November 12, 2019

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COVID-19 has changed the world. The tourism industry has been one of the hardest hit areas of the global pandemic. Local restaurants, museums, state and national parks have all changed hours of operation, procedures, and some have gone out of business altogether.

Please verify current operations of any places you want to visit mentioned in these articles, and contact me if a business has permanently closed so I can update the article. Thank you and stay safe out there!

I spent an entire week in Columbia discovering all the things to see and do for Christmas but my single favorite night at was spent at the zoo. The Lights Before Christmas at the Riverbanks Zoo & Garden was an amazing event with beautiful light displays and exciting activities. Here is everything you need to know about this event to experience it yourself.

Christmas in Columbia

This blog post is part a the series Christmas in Columbia, a travel guide I wrote after spending a week in December in Columbia. The travel guide will help you discover Christmas in Columbia during a weekend visit for the events, light displays, local shopping, dining, and lodging.

Click to enlarge.

Christmas Lights

I tried counting the number of Christmas lights on display at the zoo but like any slacker I gave up after a hundred. There’s a lot. Probably about a million.

The Lights Before Christmas was one of the most impressive displays of Christmas lights I had ever seen. Strings of lights wrapped around the trunks of palm trees and highlighted individual branches of trees. There were so many lights they cast shadows of green, red, and pink across the sidewalk and reflected in the water of ponds.

Quirky light displays sat on every corner and tucked into every alcove. Twinkling lights dangled from the tree branches overhead. An entire tunnel of lights awaited visitors to Ndoki Village in a far corner of the zoo.

I walked through the zoo five times the one night I went. If I were a local I would have gone at least two separate nights. But at least I have plenty of pretty pictures to remember it by although I am certain I would never forget that event.

READ MORE: Five Places to Find Beautiful Christmas Lights in Columbia, SC

A family stops to admire the Animated Story Tree during the Lights Before Christmas.

Animated Story Tree

I didn’t get it at first. I stood back watching lights dancing around a towering Christmas tree in the middle of the zoo. Patterns. Shapes.

Then I understood: it was a story tree! Animals traveled across the tree as stories unfolded. Families stopped in awe to watch the display. It was certainly one of the more interesting attractions at the zoo during Lights Before Christmas.

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Santa Claus waiting and mostly eager for the next group of photos at the Lights Before Christmas.

Photos with Santa

What Christmas event is complete without Santa Claus? Each night up until December 23 Santa can be found at the Safari Camp covered shelter after 6 p.m. Photos with Santa are free because you bring your own camera. The line moved pretty quick and I was surprised at how well it was managed considering there was no pesky photographer directing traffic (full disclosure: I have been that pesky photographer in the past).

READ MORE: 15 Fantastic Christmas Events You Don’t Want to Miss in Columbia, SC

People roast marshmallows at the Jingle Bell Bonfire during Lights Before Christmas.

Jingle Bell Bonfire

If I were to pick a favorite moment of my favorite night during Christmas in Columbia, it would have been the half hour I spent making s’mores at the Jingle Bell Bonfire. An enormous propane fire pit between the sea lions and aquarium lit up the night.

A nearby vendor sold the ingredients needed to make perfect s’mores. A couple minutes of roasting a marshmallow on the open flame and you were ready for a delicious treat during the Lights Before Christmas.

READ MORE: Everything You Need to Know About the Holiday Lights on the River in Columbia, SC

The carousel spins in the dead of night with a flash display during the Lights Before Christmas.

Ride the Carousel

Have you ever ridden a carousel at night? I don’t know if it’s really any different than riding during the day but it looked like a neat thing to do during the Lights Before Christmas. A long line of families eagerly waited for the chance to hop onboard and take a few spins.

There were a couple of fire pits in the large pavilion beside the carousel. It was a chance for people to warm their hands or just have a good chat beside an open fire. It was certainly a place I enjoyed taking a load off my feet for a few minutes (I circled the zoo five times, remember?).

READ MORE: 16 Favorite Travel Photos of Christmas in Columbia, SC

Kids warm their hands at a bonfire during the Lights Before Christmas.

2019 Lights Before Christmas Schedule

The Lights Before Christmas is held on select dates from 5-9 p.m. Here is a complete schedule so you will be sure not to miss it:

  • Saturday, November 23
  • Sunday, November 24
  • Wednesday, November 27
  • Friday, November 29 – Sunday, December 1
  • Wednesday, December 4 – Sunday, December 8
  • Wednesday, December 11 – Sunday, December 15
  • Wednesday, December 18 – Monday, December 23
  • Thursday, December 26 – Monday, December 30
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Admission to the Lights Before Christmas is $12 for adults, $10 for children age 2-12, and free for children under 2.

A cozy patio with tables tucked away into a quiet corner of the Riverbanks Zoo during Lights Before Christmas.

Getting There & Parking

There is only one way to get to the Riverbanks Zoo & Garden but fortunately it is an easy way. The Greystone Boulevard exit on Interstate 126 leads directly to the zoo. Easy off, easy on when you’re ready to leave.

Almost as soon as you turn down Rivermont Drive you’ll see the entrance to the zoo on the right. There was a gentleman standing out there when I arrived directing traffic to the parking lots.

There is plenty of parking at the Riverbanks Zoo & Garden. The better parking is to turn left after entering the zoo parking lot, drive beneath the footbridge, and park at the other end. This is the closest you’ll get to the main entrance.

Just in case all this parking is full, that footbridge crosses the railroad tracks to an enormous parking lot on the other side. That parking lot is accessed from Rivermont Drive before turning into the zoo. There is an elevator at either end of the footbridge to assist with accessibility.

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