San Diego Zoo rings in the holiday with annual Jungle Bells
Visitors will encounter exotic animals, merry-making performances, hundreds of twinkling lights and a brand new show
All creatures great and small will welcome guests to a wild wonderland of holiday cheer at the San Diego Zoo’s 11th annual Jungle Bells.
The three-week celebration kicks off Friday and runs through Jan 5. During the festival, the zoo remains open until 8 p.m. (except on Christmas Eve, when the park will close at 5 p.m.). The park is open on Christmas and New Year’s Day.
Festivities start around 4 p.m. and features lighted displays, including “dancing light” animal sculptures, holiday decor, live animal shows, storytelling, carolers, food specials, live music, a 4-D movie, and Santa Claus and his elves.
Each evening, visitors will discover the magic of Aurora, a brand new multisensory presentation. It blends music, lights, 3-D projection mapping and live performers.
While you’re walking the zoo grounds soaking in the sights and smells of the holiday season, don’t be surprised to meet some friendly sprites — wispy fairy-like creatures — along the way. Symbolizing three elements of nature — wind, water and ice — these ethereal entities each inhabit one of three areas of the zoo: Wind (Center Street, map locator No. 8); Water (Africa Rocks, near Rocks Box snack stand); and Ice (Park Way, map locator No. 14). Engaging you with spirited goodwill and affection, they will then point the way down a special pathway where music, lighting, a soundscape and more sprite guides lead you to the magical world of Aurora where the experience continues — and delights.
As the surrounding lights dim, striking 3-D projection mapped images will immerse you deeper into a supernatural realm. The friendly sprites are here, too, sharing their story and the power of nature contained in their mystical orbs. As the performance comes to a dramatic and stunning conclusion, the Aurora Borealis appears — the only time San Diego may possibly experience this winter phenomenon.
Every 30 minutes, at the Main Entrance Plaza, hundreds of strands of colorful lights will illuminate the tooga tree during a Celebration of Lights music and light ceremony from 4:55 to 7:55 p.m. each evening.
Santa and sounds
Santa Claus, his elves, “Dr. Zoolittle” and other holiday characters join the park’s wild animals. Share your Christmas wish list and snap photos with Santa at his factory at the Price Education Center. Santa’s elves keep things hopping with acrobatic tricks on a trampoline at the Toy Shop near Sydney’s Grill.
Not a creature will stir as Dr. Zoolittle reads Clement Clarke Moore’s classic poem, “The Night Before Christmas” (zoo style) at 4, 5, 6 and 7 p.m. at the Africa Rocks Stage.
Sway to some frosty holiday tunes as The Tinseltones perform their musical show at 5:15, 5:45, 6:15 and 6:45 p.m. at the Boardwalk Beer Garden. At the Front Street Stage, listen to the jingly, jazzy sounds of the Jingle Brass every hour from 4:30 to 7:30 p.m.
Trains and bears
Follow the forest pathway to the Northern Frontier’s Holiday Forest, where polar bears, arctic foxes and reindeer dwell amid festively decorated lighted trees. You can view these cold-climate critters daily through 8 p.m.
Getting a little fatigued from all that walking? Take a ride aboard the Balboa Park miniature train located just outside the exit of the park. The train runs continuously through 8 p.m. Tickets are $3 for children 1 and older, and children under 1 are free. Children 5 and under must ride with a paying adult. Don’t forget to get your hand stamped at the exit for same-day entry.
Nearby in Northern Frontier, visitors can experience the classic children’s story “The Polar Express” in 4-D film at the 4-D Theater. The movie, based on the book by Chris Van Allsburg, takes families on a magical train ride to Santa’s village at the North Pole, complete with three-dimensional sights, sounds, scents and motions. Ticket purchase required. Last show starts at 7 p.m.
Games and grub
Other activities include reindeer games at the Front Street Stage, zoo characters meet and greet at the Gingerbread Landing near Treetops Cafe, animal encounters at various locations, and an Inside Look Twilight Tour (separate cost), that features night-loving animals, including the aye-aye, a nocturnal lemur native to Madagascar. The tour is open to all ages and is offered for a limited time only.
Worked up an appetite? Stop in for a holiday happy hour of select discounted drinks and appetizers at Albert’s Restaurant from 3 to 5 p.m. daily. The restaurant also offers an Aurora preshow dinner package. The cost is $50 per adult and $25 per child 3-11. Reservations are available between 5 and 6:15 p.m.
San Diego Zoo Jungle Bells
When: Zoo hours: 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday through Jan. 5, except Christmas Eve when the zoo closes at 5 p.m.
Where: San Diego Zoo, 2920 Zoo Drive, San Diego
Tickets: Free with paid admission or membership. Parking is free
Phone: (619) 718-3000
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