Glowfari at the Oakland Zoo Is an Extravaganza of Animal-Themed Lanterns

The animals at the Oakland Zoo go to bed pretty early in the cold winter months. That presented a problem for the zoo–it couldn’t stay open into the evenings in the Winter, since there was nothing for visitors to see. The zoo’s solution, Glowfari, is absolutely brilliant–both literally and figuratively. The annual display has become a mile-long extravaganza of light, sculpture, and music. It’s a wonderful reason to visit the zoo after hours, enjoying a unique evening and lending much-needed support to this Oakland institution.

Glowfari, which replaces the Oakland Zoo’s former holiday-centered Zoo Lights event–is modeled on displays of Chinese lanterns. Fabric-covered metal lanterns are illuminated from within, glowing radiantly, especially after the sun goes down. Except here at the Oakland Zoo, the lanterns aren’t covering just any theme; all the lanterns show various animals, in many cases the same ones who you can visit during the day at the zoo. And these lanterns are massive–many are human-sized or even larger, towering over visitors and wowing them with lights and sometimes motion, too.

Visiting Glowfari

When you first arrive at Glowfari, you’re greeted by giant glowing flamingos surrounding the zoo’s flamingo pond. You then wander at will throughout the zoo, encountering individual lantern animals or whole scenes featuring related animals at nearly every turn. There are hundreds of animal lanterns throughout the zoo, providing plenty of reason to roam its grounds and take them all in.

In 2021, Glowfari has expanded dramatically. I went last year, but at the time it was a more subdued, smaller event, perhaps because Covid-19 lockdowns were just ending. Now, the zoo has gone all out, adding many new lanterns for 2021. One of my favorite exhibits is a giant bamboo forest filled with over 40 glowing panda bears, meant to simulate the forests of Asia. There’s also a massive African savannah area you can wander around, complete with life-sized elephants, a giraffe that bends down to “drink”, and a massive peacock whose rainbow-color features extend and retract on a timer, extending several stories into the air. There are also colorful light-up swings and a lighted dance floor you and your kids can jump around on.

One of the best things to do at Glowfari is to ride the Oakland Zoo’s gondola high into the Oakland Hills. Drifting soundlessly through the night more than 100 feet above the ground feels magical.

At the top, you’ll find a giant bug-themed display filling the zoo’s California wildlife section, including a 65-foot long ant tunnel that’s delightful for kids. If you don’t like bugs, this is going to be a challenging section; steer clear of the 10-foot tarantula with moving legs.

Other Activities and Food

On your visit, you can head to the Tuskers Grill near the entrance or the cafe at the gondola landing for food. Tuskers has more basic, kid-friendly fare, whereas the Landing Cafe atop the Oakland Hills has beef empanadas, Impossible chili, and other grown-up items. The zoo’s train operates during Glowfari, whisking you through an enclosure filled with sleeping wallaroos and emus, who seem vaguely confused and annoyed to see you there. You can also peek in at the zoo’s snoozing tortoises, who bask under heat lamps at night. Otherwise, the animals are safely asleep in their sheds and interior areas.

You’d think that zoo-sized light display would be gaudy or tacky, but it’s not. Each lantern is a hand-painted work of art that’s been preserved and used for years. It’s a legitimately wondrous experience to wander among these lighted giants and take in the zoo at night. The zoo’s choice of music is a highlight of the experience, too. Speakers set among the lanterns plan animal-themed popular music. I heard Elton John’s Crocodile Rock, Ylvis’s What Does the Fox Say?, and Katy Perry’s Roar playing, among many other clever selections.

Glowfari is also incredibly important for the Oakland Zoo, which is primarily supported by visitor tickets and came dangerously close to closing for good due to Covid-19. You get to enjoy artistic animals and help feed the zoo’s real animals with your ticket purchase, a major win-win. Dress warmly, as it gets chilly, especially up in the hills. There’s hot chocolate available to purchase at the food stands, too. It’s a wonderful way to spend time with your family or a fun thing to do for a couple, too.

Glowfari is a yearly event, and this year it’s been expanded through February 6th due to popular demand. Purchase tickets well in advance, as Glowfari is popular and nights often sell out. Visit the Oakland Zoo website to reserve your tickets.

This article originally appeared in the Bold Italic.

Thomas Smith

Thomas Smith is a food and travel photographer and writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. His photographic work routinely appears in publications including Food and Wine, Conde Nast Traveler, and the New York Times and his writing appears in IEEE Spectrum, SFGate, the Bold Italic and more. Smith holds a degree in Cognitive Science (Neuroscience) and Anthropology from the Johns Hopkins University.

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