WHO: Ginessa (Mom) and her six children: Simeon (11), Judah (9), Eden (6), Elias (4), Selah (3) and Tobias (9 months)
WHAT: Zoolumination: Chinese Festival of Lights
WHERE: Nashville Zoo (3777 Nolensville Road, Nashville)
WHEN: Daily through Feb. 2, 2020, from 5 - 9 p.m. (closed Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Year's Eve and New Year's Day)
ADMISSION: $19 adults and teens, $14 ages 2 - 12, free ages 23 months and younger (members get $2 off). Platinum passes are $29 adults, $19 ages 2 - 12, and they grant you unlimited visits during the exhibit's run
PARKING: $7; free for members
INFO: 615-833-1534 | nashvillezoo.org

The wait is over and Zoolumination is finally here! After months of previews from various local media outlets and plenty of anticipation, the Nashville Zoo’s Zoolumination: Chinese Festival of Lights event recently opened to an adoring community. 

Our family had the opportunity to explore this wonderful event on the opening night and boy, were we in for a brilliant experience!

Going to the Nashville Zoo has been an outing we have come to look forward to as a family since moving to the city three years ago. We love to visit as often as we can, and our children are obsessed with discovering new things to do there. Having a yearly membership and living a mere 15 minutes away makes it an easy outing for us. In the past couple of years as members, we have helped welcome the new Sumatran tigers, Andean bears, amazing state-of-the-art veterinary clinic and now the largest Chinese lantern festival in the United States!

As much as I tried to read up on Zoolumination prior to visiting, it by far exceeded all of my expectations! It is one of those events that you have to experience first-hand to truly appreciate it! It’s that good! In order to build some fun anticipation, my husband and I briefly discussed with our children a few neat things that I knew to expect about the lantern festival during our car ride to the zoo. I explained to them that we would be introduced to some elements of traditional Chinese culture and symbolism, while also preparing them for the fact that not all of the animals they are used to seeing would be available for viewing that evening. 

I also knew we would be visiting the zoo right around our dinner time, so we opted for an early meal with our children before we arrived. I figured if they got hungry while we were exploring, we could opt for some of the enjoyable snacks and refreshments like hot chocolate, popcorn and funnel cakes available at various vendors. I imagined that our time there would fly by and we definitely wanted to see everything we could.

Zoolumination was simply everything we hoped it would be and more!

After easily finding a parking spot not too far from the zoo entrance, we walked up and were immediately blown away! You instantly feel immersed in Chinese culture as you walk through a huge, traditional Chinese memorial archway that is as beautiful as it is grand.

Also near the entrance you have the opportunity to see some of the unique lantern displays up-close like the “cherry blossom trees” and “butterfly” displays. We all grabbed maps (my kids each love carrying their own and navigating themselves around) and noted the three different show times that would be taking place in the amphitheater as well as the scheduled exhibit times for viewing the animals. This helped us to plan out the rest of our visit and make sure that we were able to experience everything.

More than 500 colorful Chinese lanterns are currently lighting up 60 acres of our Nashville Zoo at night! It literally feels like there is something to see at every turn. On some of the paths there are colorful lanterns that hang and dazzle over your head forming a unique tunnel to walk through; others are displayed on huge rafts in some of the ponds. It is evident that so much attention to detail and a great deal of beautiful artistry and craftsmanship went into each and every exhibit. In fact, I was not surprised to learn later that it took up to eight months to design, build and construct most of the lanterns before shipping them from Zigong, China. Amazing!

My children wanted to go see the tigers first, so we strolled over to the Tiger Crossroads. On the way over, they couldn’t stop pointing out some of their favorite zoo animals re-imagined and displayed as beautiful life-sized lanterns. This definitely created a wonderful “wow factor” throughout the evening for them.  When we arrived to the actual Tiger Crossroads area we were pleased to see one beautiful and regal Sumatran tiger curled up in a corner resting next to the glass display. It was awesome and definitely one of our many highlights of the evening!  My children have never been able to see the tigers this close on our normal zoo visits so this just added to the “magic” of the evening. In fact, by the time we ventured over to see the Andean bears, they were nestled up under their resting spot several feet from the display window and weren’t as easy to spot, but the kiddos didn’t seem to mind, especially after getting a rare glimpse at one of the magnificent tigers.

THAT'S ENTERTAINMENT!

Afterward, we stopped to see one of the entertaining shows that embodied one of the many traditional Chinese cultural experiences. The one we saw was the “Sichuan Opera Face.”  It was very interactive, fast-paced and entertaining, which was great considering how chilly the weather felt when we stopped for a long period of time in the cold. Although we enjoyed the show and appreciated resting our legs for a bit, there was still so much to see, so we headed over to two of our favorite features of our zoo, the Soaring Eagle zipline and Wild Animal carousel!

My kids are no strangers to the zoo's zipline ride. They have ridden it plenty of times before, but they were extremely excited for the chance to ride it at night! So up they went, a little more than 100 feet in the air for a unique chance to overlook the zoo and all of its new lights. They said it was awesome! I stayed back with our youngest kids while I watched my husband ride with our oldest children since there is a height requirement to participate. Our younger crew soon got in on the action as we made our way to the carousel where they could pick and ride their favorite wild animals, again at night, which they were excited to experience for the first time.  Both attractions, the zip line and carousel, require additional tickets (zip line $8/person, carousel $2/person) in addition to the entrance fee. (Pro-tip: Buy your attraction tickets in advance at the gate before you come in to the zoo that was you avoid having to go all the way back if you decide to ride later. Trust me, both attractions look so appealing against the night sky, your kids will want to ride at least once.)

SANTA AWAITS!

Next on our agenda was to venture over to the “North Pole.” The most adorable holiday village has been constructed in the Grassmere farm area complete with an enormous train made entirely out of lanterns! It reminded us of “The Polar Express,” and my kids literally squealed in delight as we headed in the direction of the locomotive. It is an awesome standout amid the glowing trees and lights! And no North Pole visit would be complete without a meet and greet with Santa! 

Santa will be at Zoolumination every evening until Monday, Dec. 23. He took some time during our visit with him to ask my kiddos all of the important questions like what they each were looking forward to the most at Christmas and if they had mailed off their letters to the North Pole. Visiting with Santa is free of charge and you are welcome to purchase the professional photograph packages afterward. Also, if you enjoy visiting the Grassmere historic home and farm throughout the year, this is an opportunity to see the grounds “all dressed up” for the holidays.

By the time we were done with Santa’s Village we had seen it all. The 9 p.m. closing time seemed to approach quickly for us as we were having a good time, and I could feel us wanting to slow down our final moments of the evening in order to savor everything we were experiencing. We decided to  stop on the main lawn and take additional pictures of the many picturesque lanterns on Festival Field including the 200-foot Chinese dragon. Nearby there is a huge tent filled with Chinese art, international artisans and vendors cooking up authentic Chinese food. Our kids enjoyed running around trying to stay warm and playing a quick game of tag on the lawn before we headed out. I loved seeing their faces light up under the lantern glow and couldn’t help but think to myself that this was a perfect way to kick off our holiday season as a family!

So whether you have relatives coming in town or you are looking for something new, get ready to brighten up this holiday season and beyond with the spectacular and family-friendly Zoolumination! 

Quick Tips for visiting Zoolumination with young children:

Dress for the weather:  Layers and layers of clothing are your friend! It was a chilly 35 degrees the evening we visited, so we took no chances and made sure we bundled up all of our children well for the frigid temps.

Prepare for Potty Breaks:  Take advantage of the five restrooms spread out on the grounds that will be available for the event including the ones designed for families to make potty breaks easy and convenient.

Strollers and Snacks:  We all know those little legs will get tired and their tummies will soon grumble, so bringing a stroller, a few snacks and maybe an extra blanket will help your little one stay cozy and satisfied.

Consider the Platinum Pass:  For a limited-time only, the Zoo is offering a “Platinum Pass” that is just $10 more for adults and $5 more per child for UNLIMITED admission to Zoolumination until it ends in February. This is a great deal especially if you know you want to take your time and visit more than once.