Holiday Lights At Turtle Back Zoo


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Just after Thanksgiving, Turtle Back Zoo kicked off its fifth annual holiday lights show.  The last time we attended this event, it was three years ago, and it was much colder! Traipsing around the zoo in the dark was fun for both kids and adults.

This year we had an added surprise, and it was the good kind. The admission was free. “Given the difficult economic times we are experiencing, we are offering free admission to make this exciting attraction available to everyone. We also are encouraging our visitors to bring non-perishable food items, new unwrapped toys, and new and gently used winter coats to help the less fortunate,” noted Joseph N. DiVincenzo Jr., Essex County Executive, in a statement.

This year the zoo is collecting non-perishable food items; new, unwrapped toys; and new or gently used winter coats. Items will be donated to several organizations that provide assistance to the needy. Last year, 11,490 pounds–or almost six tons –of food was collected for the Community Food Bank of NJ, 1,506 new toys were collected for Toys for Tots and the Make A Wish Foundation, and 109 winter coats for the needy were donated to the Community FoodBank. There are large bins set up right inside the zoo entrance, so you don’t have to carry your donations all through the zoo.

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Much of the zoo was open, including the carousel and several areas where kids can just run free and climb on things. While the train was closed, the tropical fish exhibit and farm animal area were both open. I think my favorite part was seeing the wolves. In the winter months, while their hair is thicker for the colder weather, they are beautiful and majestic. Turtle Back Zoo Director Dr. Jeremy Goodman, agrees with me.  “Winter is one of my favorite seasons at the zoo because some of the animals are more active in the colder weather,” he said.

The Holiday Lights Spectacular runs this weekend, December 10 and 11 and then daily from Friday, December 17 to Sunday, January 1. It is open from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. each night. It will be closed on December 24 and 25.

Special events:

  • Photographs with Santa Claus will be taken at the zoo every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday until Friday, December 23.
  • A special performance by the Essex County West Caldwell Tech student choir will be held on Monday, December 19 at 6 p.m.

As a final thought, I would add this: If you plan to go early and then go out for dinner, as we did, plan ahead. By the time we got to the new restaurant by the zoo, McLoone’s Boat House (at about 6:15 p.m.) there was an hour wait. I would recommend calling ahead to make a reservation.

The Essex County Holiday Lights Spectacular is sponsored by Covanta Energy, PSE&G, McLoone’s Boathouse Restaurant, the Zoological Society of New Jersey and the Essex County Parks Foundation. Hot chocolate and other refreshments will be available to purchase.

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Turtle Back Zoo is open Mondays to Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and Sundays from 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Regular admission is $7 for children and senior citizens, $10 for adults and free for children under 2 years. For additional information, please call 973-731-5800 or visit

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  1. If you can I would recommend going on a weekday evening (when that starts). I was there the weekend it opened and it was CROWDED!!! And reminder, the carousel is $2 a ride!


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