Have you ever wondered what the animals do at night in the zoo? Well, we found out when we visited the Holiday Lights Spectacular at Turtle Back Zoo in West Orange. Not only was entry free (donations are recommended), but we could see holiday lights, hop on a train ride, ride the carousel, take a pony ride, and visit the Reptile House and Essex Farm all in one night. Scroll down on what you need to know about Turtle Back Zoo, one of our favorite places and on our list of must-see places in NJ during the year, too. (featured photo taken at the Turtle Back Zoo).
Lights as far as the eye can see
The Holiday Lights Spectacular at Turtle Back Zoo is set to the backdrop of several zoo animals (not all animal displays are open for this event), but the main event is the outdoor stroll through the light display. The lights are everywhere, and we found plenty of photo ops and lights at locations like the Flamingo Tree, Amazing Asia, and the Snowflake Holiday Light Tunnel. We also enjoyed seeing the giant lit-up giraffes, majestic nutcrackers, and shimmering orbs. As we walked along, the vibrant lights and seasonal music really put us in the holiday spirit.
Hide-and-seek with zoo animals
Seeing the zoo at night was an experience in itself. It was like a game of hide-and-seek— my daughter loved to look through the zoo to see which animals she could find. Finding them in the lit-up areas was easy, but the darker spots were a challenge and a lot more fun. We are happy to report that we found the Clouded Leopard and the hyenas. The Touch Tank, Reptile House, and Essex Farm were also open during the event.
A train ride, a carousel spin, and Santa
Departing from Turtle Back Junction on the miniature train ride was worth the trip as it traveled through the South Mountain Reservation and gave us a chance to get off our feet and take a festive ride together. The Endangered Species Carousel ride was another not-to-be-missed part of the zoo where kids can ride on a panda, tiger, or one of the 30 other rare creatures on this custom-built ride (it’s $3 per ride). When we were done with the ride, my daughter spotted the man in the red suit, as Santa visits on weekends during the holidays, and a professional photographer is available—look out for Grinch weekend, too.
Festive food options
After, we were getting hungry and happy to find so many choices for food. We could sit down at the Cafe or grab a snack from the Popcorn Truck, Zeppole Stand (these looked amazing), and Sip N’Swirl ice cream. We opted for s’mores since they are a special treat on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. The s’mores were a hit with my daughter since we could heat up by the fire while making our treats. Though we didn’t have time, if you want more of a sit-down dinner, McLoone’s Boathouse down the road in the South Mountain Reservation is a special spot on the water with options like Stuffed Butternut Squash, Mussels With Attitude, and the McLoone’s Tower, which includes clams, oysters, and jumbo shrimp.
What to know before you go
The Holiday Lights Spectacular at Turtle Back Zoo runs every night from December 8-31, 2023 (closed December 24-25). It is free to enter, but donations are encouraged, and you can bring non-perishable foods, new (unwrapped) toys, or gently used coats. Be prepared—there is a lot of walking during the holiday stroll, and parts are uphill, but strollers are welcome. The train departs approximately every 15 minutes from the station and is wheelchair accessible. Parking is free, and there are many locations around the zoo indicated by marked signs. Santa visits on the weekends, and check ahead for special events where you can see ice sculptures and even meet a princess. You can also add on a Holiday Storytime, which includes a story and a chance to see an animal up close. The storytime event is $10 for adults and $10 for kids; under 2 is free, and tickets must be purchased in advance.
Turtle Back Zoo
560 Northfield Ave.
West Orange, NJ 07052
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