Long after the animals go to sleep, things get wild at the Riverbanks Zoo & Garden. Wild Lights is the annual Christmas holiday light display with over 60 larger-than-life 3D displays. Meander through the zoo as you sip hot chocolate, roast s’mores on a bonfire, and take a photo with Santa.
“Wild Lights is a fresh take on the holiday lights experience that will create a more meaningful connection to our mission of conservation,” says Tommy Stringfellow, President & CEO of Riverbanks Zoo & Garden. “This brand-new event will set us apart from the growing number of lights events around the Midlands while shining a light on the beauty of nature and the importance of caring for our natural world.”
Wild Lights at Riverbanks Zoo & Garden is one of Columbia’s best Christmas holiday events. It’s a family-friendly, fun-filled way to spend an evening in the moderately cool South Carolina climate.
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Riverbanks Zoo & Garden
Riverbanks Zoo opened in 1974 on the north side of the Saluda River in Columbia. In 1995, the botanical garden opened across the river in West Columbia. The Riverbanks Zoo & Garden is home to over 3,000 animals and 4,300 native and exotic plants.
The zoo is an accredited member of the Association of Zoos & Aquariums. The non-profit organization was founded in 1971 to create a set of standards for animal husbandry and care in zoological parks and aquariums in the United States.
Riverbanks Zoo & Garden supports worldwide conservation efforts, promotes local conservation, and treats raptors and endangered species in its hospital.
Visiting the Riverbanks Zoo & Garden during the day and then again for Wild Lights would be an amazing experience, but it can’t be a continuous experience. The zoo closes at 4 p.m. and reopens at 5 p.m., allowing the staff to prepare for the evening. That would be a great time to head into downtown Columbia and get an early dinner.
Wild Lights Schedule in 2023
Wild Lights is open on select nights from November 17 until January 14 from 5 p.m. until 9 p.m. It takes about 1-2 hours to stroll casually through the zoo, see all the light displays, and enjoy some activities.
Here’s the complete schedule for Wild Lights at Riverbanks Zoo & Garden in 2023:
- Friday, November 17 – Sunday, November 19
- Friday, November 24 – Sunday, November 26
- Wednesday, November 29 – Sunday, December 3
- Wednesday, December 6 – Sunday, December 10
- Wednesday, December 13 – Saturday, December 23
- Tuesday, December 26 – Sunday, December 31
- Wednesday, January 3 – Sunday, January 7
- Wednesday, January 10 – Sunday, January 14
Wild Lights Tickets
Wild Lights at Riverbanks Zoo & Garden is one of Columbia’s most popular Christmas holiday events. I recommend buying tickets in advance and saving your date.
Tickets vary in price between Value and Standard. Value Rates are $20 for adults and $15 for children. Standard Rates are $25 for adults and $20 for children.
Value Rates are applied on weeknights and Sunday nights, while Standard Rates are applied on Friday and Saturday Nights. From December 18 until December 30, only Standard Rates are used. After the New Year, only Value Rates are applied.
Weeknights early in December are less expensive and far less crowded. I recommend seeing the lights for the first time during this time window. But then, go back to see them again after the New Year!
Buy General Tickets on the Riverbanks Zoo & Garden website.
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Larger-Than-Life Handcrafted Lanterns
The main attraction of the brand-new Wild Lights holiday display is 60 larger-than-life lanterns. Designed and built by China-based Tianyu Arts & Culture, each three-dimensional lantern is handcrafted with a rigid skeleton and semi-transparent outer layer. The outer layer is painted like the animal’s skin and then lit from within.
The lanterns are a stunning work of art that are just as wonderful to admire during daylight as after dark. They are tremendously better than traditional two-dimensional wireframe displays.
“We wanted to go with a little less Santa Claus and a little more ‘Animal Claus’ this year,” explains Matt Perron, Public Relations Manager for Riverbanks Zoo & Garden.
The lanterns are scattered throughout the zoo along the meandering concrete paths. A towering American Bison glares across the zoo near a sloth clinging to a tree. Twinkling butterflies, a pack of hyenas roaming the landscape, and a herd of zebras grazing in the grass await nightly visitors.
And some of the lanterns come alive! The peacock’s tailfeathers lift for a brilliant display and the salamander’s tail swings left and right.
The lanterns are exclusively on display for Christmas. It’s worth the easy drive to Columbia to see them in the late afternoon and then come back an hour later to see them again after dark.
Photos with Santa
The goal of Wild Lights is to go with a little less Santa Claus, but that doesn’t mean Ole Saint Nick isn’t there. Santa appears nightly at the Safari Camp covered shelter from November 17 until December 23.
Capture photos with Santa using your smartphone. It’s quick, easy, and free of charge.
Bonfires and S’mores
Is there anything better in the winter than a toasty bonfire and s’mores? At the giant firepit near the aquarium and sea lion tank, you can roast marshmallows and skillfully build your s’mores.
Tables and chairs are scattered around the concrete paths, offering a place to take a break from the spectacle and enjoy your custom built dessert.
Getting There & Parking
Getting to the Riverbanks Zoo & Botanical Garden is easy, with a dedicated interchange on I-126. Take the Greystone Boulevard exit and turn left onto Rivermont Drive.
Ample parking at the zoo is spread across both sides of an active railroad. Although it’s tempting to park as close to the entrance as possible, the best parking is along Rivermont Drive in a parking area labeled “Blue Lot” on Google Maps.
A pedestrian footbridge crosses over the railroad with an elevator at either end for accessibility.