Published by Jeremy. Last Updated on November 22, 2023.
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In 2023, the Pittsburgh Zoo will be offering walk through experiences of the Christmas lights on select nights in addition to the drive through experience described below.
To celebrate the holiday season, there are a number of drive-through light display experiences in the Pittsburgh region.
The zoo is one such place and offered an animal-centric light show during our visit in 2020. While this one is likely best enjoyed by young children who love zoo animals, visitors of all ages are likely to find a favorite animal represented in lights.
Holiday Highlights of the Animals at the Pittsburgh Zoo
We weren't quite sure what to expect when visiting a drive-thru light experience at the zoo as we weren't sure how many roads were wide enough for passenger vehicles on the property. Surprisingly, when passing through it felt like we looped our way through most of the park over the course of the mile-or-so ride (although we do believe their caution against oversized vehicles is appropriate- some paths are tight).
While you do not actually get to see any animals during this drive-thru show (the park is also completely off-limits to foot traffic during the show), the zoo makes up for it by having light exhibits in the shape of roughly two dozen of their animals lining the path near their main exhibits. Many of these are static lights with no movements, but there were a few more creative options like a sprinting cheetah and an Asian style paper lantern exhibit (to preview the now-finished Asian Lantern Festival).
As such, while this is not the most technically advanced light display it would be a good option for those who have kids who love many of the zoo animals as most are represented in lights in some capacity. Likewise, the twisty nature of the path at the zoo helped obstruct upcoming exhibits such that you don't get any sneak previews of what is ahead- something we generally dislike in other displays.
The zoo also has a downloadable audio guide to accompany the drive which explains a bit more about the real animals in each exhibit you pass by. Unfortunately, it is quite short and often gets out of sync with the drive, so one passenger in the car should be dedicated to starting and stopping the audio if this is an important feature to you as it is not synced up to your location. Personally, we just listened to it in its entirety upon arrival and then switched to Christmas music on the radio.
Timed Entry Makes Visiting a Breeze
As with most drive-thru light displays, their popularity often raises concerns of how long it takes to get in as some displays are known to have lines of, well, hours.
The Pittsburgh Zoo's light show had timed tickets during our visit in 2020 which allowed for spacing out the cars quite well. Although there were about 30 cars in front of us when we arrived to the main lot (roughly reaching the back-side of the parking lot where the u-turn is), we made our way through the line and were in the zoo in just about 10 minutes which was quite impressive.
It is worth noting that after you get checked in (all via your car) you will have to actually exit the lot, pull out onto the main roads, and enter via an employee access gate along One Wild Place a few right turns away (with a different entry ticket you receive at check-in). During our visit, our attendant simply told us to follow the car ahead of us with little extra instruction. We later saw that the ticket we were given had driving instructions plus the mobile ordering QR code to order snacks and souvenirs at some stands along the route- so you would do well to give it a quick read over before departing the check-in area.
The One Downside of the Drive-Thru? The Cost
Although fans of the zoo may enjoy this display (especially with younger kids), we have to make a callout on the price. During our visit in 2020, the price per carload was $60 with a decent discount for members. In 2021, prices appeared to decrease $10 for non-members ($50) whereas the member price remained the same ($40). The carload price ends up being roughly the same as what a family of four would pay when visiting the zoo normally for perspective.
Our normal recommendations in cases like this are to fill up your car with as many people as best you can, but in 2020 it wasn't possible to load our car with friends to reduce the effective price. So it is mostly worth just noting that the price for this one may be higher than you would otherwise like as it is one of the most expensive drive-through holiday light displays in Pittsburgh.
All that being said, this light display is the only one inside the city limits proper and proceeds help support the Pittsburgh Zoo, so we can get behind it. But we still felt like it was worth noting the price tag all the same as it is fairly significant for the experience.
The Pittsburgh Zoo Light Drive-Thru runs on select nights through early January. Tickets must be purchased online and advanced for select timeslots and we should note that prime days and hours sell out fast.