Cincinnati Zoo: Hippos & Lanterns & Lights, Oh My!

Make the PNC Festival of Lights a cherished part of your family's holiday tradition!
Cincinnati Zoo: Hippos & Lanterns & Lights, Oh My!
Photography provided by Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden

As the year winds down and the time draws near for families and friends to gather at festive parties, shop for the perfect gift and indulge in delicious food, a feeling of joyous anticipation fills the air. The holidays are just around the corner! Of course, no holiday season is truly complete without engaging in time-honored traditions that evoke a heartwarming sense of nostalgia. For many Cincinnatians, one of their most cherished holiday traditions is visiting the PNC Festival of Lights at the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden.  

This year marks the 41st annual PNC Festival of Lights celebration. The festival has been voted “Best Zoo Lights” by USA Today readers five years in a row, and with 4 million LED lights on display — along with a host of fun, family-friendly activities — the Zoo promises this year’s event will be most magnificent. 

“The PNC Festival of Lights was created as a way to bring people joy during the winter months,” says Joelle Gilbert, Special Events Manager at the Zoo. “It’s a great way to spend time with family and friends while experiencing the Zoo in a unique way.”

This year’s festival will feature 30 brand-new lanterns. Guests will have the opportunity to see many of the Zoo’s most well-known animals represented in lights, including Fritz, Fiona and the entire Hippo Cove bloat as well as Rico, the peanut butter-loving porcupine. Returning to the festival this year is the crowd-favorite attraction, Under the Sea. This immersive marine-world experience, which includes oversized jellyfish, is larger and more luminous than ever. 

In addition to admiring the beautiful lights and lanterns, Zoo guests are invited to enjoy a variety of fun, holiday-themed activities. 

Santa’s Village, sponsored by Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky Honda Dealers, is an enchanting place where children can meet the jolly elf himself through Saturday, Dec. 23. MadCap Winter Wonders, sponsored by Mercy Health, is a hilarious blacklight puppet show with three nightly performances at the Wings of Wonder Amphitheater. Visitors can also experience the magic of the North Polar Express Train Tunnel, sponsored by Huntington Bank. This year, the illuminated tunnel is longer with new vividly lit areas for visitors to see. Fiona’s Fairyland is a whimsical world with hidden Fiona fairy statues waiting to be discovered on a fun scavenger hunt.

Upon entering the Zoo, guests will be greeted by a magnificent 24-foot-tall Fiona nutcracker. A new solar light sits atop the nutcracker, spotlighting Fiona’s regal princess crown. The Main Street Village is now home to an even more spectacular Christmas tree, making it a must-see attraction this holiday season.

“When people see our breathtaking Christmas tree, it ignites the holiday spirit and sets the tone for the rest of their visit,” Gilbert says.

The magic of the PNC Festival of Lights is brought to life thanks to the collective efforts of the Zoo’s dedicated staff.

Everyone, from maintenance and guest services to skilled horticulturalists, contributes significantly to keeping this beloved tradition sparkling year after year. 

“We want everyone who visits the PNC Festival of Lights to leave with their hearts full, ready for the holidays,” Gilbert says. “It’s really special to have something in our community that is known nationally, that brings in people from all different backgrounds to celebrate the animals and the botanical garden.” 

The PNC Festival of Lights runs Friday, Nov. 17, 2023 through Sunday, Jan. 7, 2024. 

Is visiting the PNC Festival of Lights a cherished part of your family’s holiday tradition? Visit for more information about the festival, to catch up with your favorite animals or to book your unforgettable holiday party at the Zoo.

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