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Riverbanks Zoo Lights Before Christmas Festival in Columbia, SC

Published by Blanch Ulberg

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For over 23 years, the Riverbanks Zoo in Columbia, South Carolina has put on a Christmas lights festival called the Lights Before Christmas. The annual event is one of the most spectacular holiday lights displays in the Southeast. The event begins in mid November each year and continues until the day after New Year’s Day. Not only does the event feature wonderfully handcrafted displays, the South Carolina event has been making the switch to green electrical efficiency since 2007.

About the Riverbanks Zoo and Garden in Columbia, SC

The Riverbanks Zoo is one of the most popular and successful mid-size zoos in America. It opened in 1974 and since that time has won a number of awards. More than 850,000 people visit Riverbanks each year and the organization has a non-profit support base of more than 30,000 memberships in a city metropolis of less than 700,000.

The property also contains the Riverbanks Botanical Garden, which began in 1994 on a portion of the property that had not been used for over a century. This portion of the property safeguards historic areas that are designated on the National Register of Historic Places. Included in this historical area is an 800 foot long bridge over the Saluda River that connects the zoo to the garden and a 10,000 square foot visitor’s center.


Also on the property are the stone ruins of one of South Carolina’s first textile mills, from around 1830 that once used slaves to operate. It was burned by General Sherman’s troops. It is also the sited where the Union troops, under Sherman’s command, camped and shelled the city of Columbia prior to marching in and burning it.

The Lights Before Christmas Event in the Riverbanks Zoo

Guests can stroll through the many paths of the Zoo and enjoy all the trees decorated with more than one million twinkling light. There are also countless handcrafted and animated images along the route. There is also the Music in Motion Lights Spectacular, which includes sing a long Christmas carols. In the Congo Classroom, seasonal stories are read where visitors can warm up next to a cozy fire. In the Safari Camp, guests will enjoy checking out the Holiday Card Walk, which features larger than life Christmas and holiday cards that are created by local schools.

Another fun part of the Lights Before Christmas event is the Jingle Bell Bonfire. Here guests can sip hot cocoa and roast marshmallows around the fire. Be sure to bring your personal camera, because kids can stop to visit Santa and have a photo to last a lifetime. Keep in mind that it snows every night at the Lights Before Christmas, so bring a hat. Is it magic? Only Santa Claus knows.

Lights Before Christmas is Helping Columbia, South Carolina Go Green

Bring your old Christmas incandescent Christmas lights, whether they are working or not to Lights Before Christmas. If you do, you will receive a coupon with $3.00 off LED lights at Lowe’s stores. Riverbanks began the switch to LED lights when the Music in Motion section was added in 2007. Since then, much of the million lights throughout the Christmas event have been converted to LED lights.

Plan Your Visit to Riverbanks Lights Before Christmas Event

Please note that the animals will not be out during the nightly event, which begins at 6:00 pm each evening and ends at 9:00 pm. Tickets can be purchased in advance online or at the ticket booth each day before 5:00 pm. This is the best way to purchase tickets because each ticket will be $2.00 higher after 5:00 pm at the gate. This also allows visitors to avoid long lines to get in. The price for admission is $8.00 for adults, $6.00 for children aged 3 to 12, and children under three years of age are always free.

The park has both wheelchairs and strollers available for rental on a first come, first serve basis. No reservations for the wheelchairs or strollers are available. They do have some double strollers available. The price for the rental is around $6.00 to $10.00 for a stroller or wheelchair and a $5.00 deposit. Parking is allowed only on the Zoo side of Riverbanks during the nightly event. Lights Before Christmas is closed Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve.

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