Brookfield Zoo

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We stood near a 41-foot-tall Christmas tree whose dazzlingly colored lights danced rhythmically to the choreographed seasonal tunes. Deep basso notes rumbled across the broad expanses on an early December afternoon, stopping the few visitors in their tracks.

Smiles spread across the faces of patient parents as excited children grabbed their hands, pulling them away from the tree towards the source of the deep, heavy resonance as it continued unabated.

Brutus, one of two lion brothers
Brutus, one of two lion brothers. Photo by Frank Hosek

Either Brutus or Titus, a pair of African lion brothers, was announcing his oversight of the 216-acre Brookfield Zoo. As we came closer, the roar was both deafening and awe-inspiring. It transfixed everyone within sight and hearing.

Christmas lights and African lions might seem an odd pairing, but at Brookfield Zoo’s 42nd annual Holiday Magic show, it’s a perfect combination. What had become an annual tradition, we had set out to experience Christmas at the zoo.

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Children enjoy the park's colorful carousel and its 72 carved wooden animals
Children enjoy the park’s colorful carousel and its 72 carved wooden animals. Photo by Frank Hosek

We had arrived just as the gates opened at 3:00 PM on a windy, but rather mild, December afternoon. As we entered from the North gate, we walked past an improbably enormous bronze gorilla who receives everyone from a comfortable reclining position. Leaving the simian greeter behind, we were faced with the 41-foot-tall, musically inclined Christmas tree and its pulsating lights. Just beyond was the park’s colorful carousel. A wooden Noah’s Ark in a 54’ diameter merry-go-round format with 72 carved, vibrantly painted wooden animals was being swarmed by excited children.

A 20-foot-tall hollow ornament covered in festive lights
A 20-foot-tall hollow ornament covered in festive lights. Photo by Frank Hosek

On the far side of the carousel, a 20-foot-tall hollow ornament covered in more lights stood ready for exploration and selfies. In a nod towards the future, the illuminated orb was powered by a Ford Lightening pickup. Standing guard over the entire display was a larger-than-life polar bear sculpture that changed colors intermittently.

 A beautifully striped Amur tiger pacing his domain
A beautifully striped Amur tiger pacing his domain. Photo by Frank Hosek

Big Cats and Two Million Twinkling Holiday Lights

That alone seemed festive enough to me. However, it barely scratched the surface of the joyful atmosphere created by the zoo. Over two million lights have been hung or strewn across the vast panorama. Colorful LED’s wrap hundreds of trees, brightening their dull winter silhouettes.

You go to the zoo to see the exotic animals, and our visit was no different. Arriving early afforded us the opportunity to see them without the crowds. With the roar echoing across the landscape, we made our way to the big cats. The cooler weather seemed to appeal to them as they were all awake and active.

This is not always the case during the heat of the summer. A curious Amur Leopard behind glass kept a close eye on us as did the beautifully striped tiger pacing his domain. Then there were the lions. While Titus gnawed on a bone, Brutus surveyed the crowd as we gazed upon them.

 The dappled white fur of the snow leopards added to the festive season
The dappled white fur of the snow leopards added to the festive season.
Photo by Frank Hosek

I especially enjoyed the snow leopard enclosure. Malaya and Ahava, mom and cub, have such beautiful and luxurious coats and their dappled white fur is a perfect fit for the Christmas season.

As the late afternoon turned towards dusk, the twinkling lights began to emerge in all their glory. We wandered around the Roosevelt Fountain past a parade of over 700 Christmas trees lining the pathway. Each tree was decorated by family donors in an array of imaginative, merry and heartwarming motifs.

At the south mall, we paused at a gingerbread house, smiling as a family struggled to get pictures of fidgety children while a flock of geese looked on.

 Gorillas of Tropic World eye the visitors
The gorillas of Tropic World eye the visitors. Photo by Frank Hosek

The Great Apes and A Tunnel of Lights

Nearby, the Tropic World exhibit beckoned us. One of the largest indoor zoo exhibits in the world, Tropic World, is divided into three sections with apes from three different continents: South America, Asia and Africa.

The highlight, I believe, for most are the gorillas in the African section. Looking at the troop, I got the distinct impression they were sizing us up as well. The most famous of which is Binti Jua. Many will remember her for her rescue of a 3-year-old who fell into the enclosure and the subsequent involvement of local firemen.

Families stroll through the 600-foot-long Tunnel of Lights
Families stroll through the 600-foot-long Tunnel of Lights. Photo by Frank Hoseek

As we exited the ape house, we joined an ever-growing throng of guests exploring the west mall and its merry spectacle. We walked through the 600-foot-long Tunnel of Lights, mesmerized by the synchronized light and music show in the Sea of Lights that covered the west lawn.

Considering the season, it only seemed fitting to visit the Great Bear Wilderness with its American Bison, Grey Wolves, Grizzly Bear and, most appropriately, the Polar Bear. Again, the cool weather appeared to please all, as the animals were quite animated. Except for Mr. Grizzly, who was suitably napping.

A larger-than-life polar bear sculpture that change colors intermittently
A larger-than-life polar bear sculpture that change colors intermittently. Photo by Frank Hosek

Brookfield Zoo Holiday Magic For the Child in Us All

Walking through the vast grounds after sunset with its vibrant nightlights twinkling throughout the grounds made for a comfortable and comforting evening stroll. Some children ran from one oversized lighted display of giraffe, bison, or reindeer to the next with awed exclamations. Meanwhile, others stood transfixed by the enormous displays that seemed other-worldly. Adults followed unhurriedly with smiles and shared season’s greetings, all of which added to the ambiance throughout the park.

At the North Pole, located in The Pavilions, guests could take in performances by Those Funny Little People and juggling elves. Meanwhile, youngsters were sharing their wish lists and having their photos taken with Santa.

Visitors can watch professional ice carvers create frozen works of art from giant blocks of ice. Plus, while strolling the walkways, you can join in the merrymaking with the roaming carolers as they sing holiday songs.

The Ginger Bread house.
The Ginger Bread House. Photo by Frank Hosek

If the children need another distraction, they can try to spot the 27 gnomes hidden throughout the zoo. Kids can also bring letters to drop off for Santa.

The zoo’s restaurants and food stands will also offer food and drinks. This includes festive beverages for adults, spiked with a little extra something to keep the cold night air at bay.

Brookfield Zoo’s 42nd annual Holiday Magic show will plunge you into the holiday spirit with a roar.

Bring your family to Brookfield Zoo Holiday Magic for a magical night with bright lights, amazing animals, carousel rides and much more. #Brookfieldzoo

If you go:

Brookfield Zoo’s 42nd annual Holiday Magic show is open from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. from November 24th through Dec. 31. It is located at 8400 W. 31st St., Brookfield, Illinois, 14 miles west of downtown Chicago. Admission to Brookfield Zoo is $29.95 for adults, $20.95 for children ages 3–11, and $24.95 for seniors 65 and over. Parking is $17. For more information about Holiday Magic, visit

If you plan on exploring more of Chicago, I recommend the Go City Explorer Pass where you can save up to 50% on admission for a variety of must-sees, zoo included.

If you’d prefer to stay in Chicago and commute to Brookfield, check out these hotels.

Author Bio: Frank Hosek is an Illinois-based Director of Human Resources who revels in traveling with his wife, Kathy.  He enjoys discovering new experiences, meeting the people that make those experiences enjoyable, and sharing their adventures. He is a freelance writer for newspapers, magazines and travel websites.

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