A Wild Wonderland in Tampa

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December 30th 2009
Published: January 4th 2010
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Lowry Park Zoo has always been one of my favorite places in Tampa. We hadn’t had a chance to visit since we’ve moved back to Florida, but the seasonal arrival of the reindeer seemed like the perfect excuse to spend the evening at the zoo.

We met up with a friend and her 3-year-old son at 6 p.m. when they opened the gates for the after-dark Wild Wonderland event. The park was deluged with crowds of people pushing carriages and being trailed by young, excited children, and it really is the type of event no parent should miss. Parents Magazine has rated Lowry Park Zoo as #1 in their list of “10 Best Zoos for Kids” across the country, and there’s no surprise as to why when you see all that they offer for this special event: Santa’s there with six of his reindeer, Frosty’s Foam Factory lets the kids romp through a Floridian’s bubbly version of “snow,” and a Vision of Sugarplums exhibit takes you through a pathway of illuminated trees, giant LED-lit snowflakes, and delicately extravagant displays of glowing fairies and various magical winter themes. There’s also a horse-drawn carriage ride, but it costs extra, so we didn’t do it.

Upon first entering the park, after walking through a light shower of fake snow, you’re greeted by giant nutcrackers guarding a frozen fountain of lights and a colorful Christmas souvenir shop whose roof is traced in giant peppermints and candy canes. This helps create a holiday spirit as you move further into the darkened park, following the weaving paths that are now tunnels of sparkling lights, with nearly every tree and bush highlighted by Christmas lights in bright colors or calming clusters of white and blue.

The animals, with the exceptions of the reindeer and penguins, were all sleeping (or doing whatever their traditional nocturnal routines are) and so their pens were shrouded in darkness, presumably so that their habitats would disappear into the background and allow the special Wild Wonderland exhibits to take center stage. Or just to give the animals a break from the regular daytime patrons.

Stretching across the park were all of the aforementioned displays, as well as some familiar favorites. Rides like the Jungle Carousel, Overland Express train and Treetop Skyfari sky ride were all open and free with paid admission to the event. The Sweet Shoppe was a delicious
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Nutcrackers greeting the park guests.
stop, serving up ice cream and sugary treats. I, of course, got some mint chocolate chip ice cream, but also tried my husband’s Pretty ‘n’ Pink cupcake. I have to admit that the soft, cherry-flavored cake and the thick but airy icing topped with a fresh red cherry really hit the spot.

We wandered from one end of the park to the other, following the sparkling paths past colorfully lit sculptures of everything from snowmen to poinsettias to flamingos, stopping at the reindeer’s barn (because we were there the last night of the event, all but one reindeer had already lost their antlers, though they were still on display nearby), through the Visions of Sugarplums exhibit, past the tank of active penguins vying for attention, under the bridge housing bright and shining sculptures of big cats, and posing for photo ops in front of the 10-foot tall, animated light display of Santa, quietly waving at passersby.

A visit to Lowry Park Zoo is always a great idea and I’m glad we took the opportunity to see their annual Wild Wonderland event. It may have been aimed more toward children, but we had fun.

Additional photos below
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Throughout the park, trees were lit with all sorts of decorations.

The only one that hadn't lost their antlers yet.

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