Twinkling Lights at Holiday Nights
December 2022 | Updated 12/1/22: Correction re: ticket pricing in calendar
by Kelly McCandless
As we settle into this final month of the year, I can’t help but take a deep breath, soak in the beauty around me, and become an absolute sucker for all the holiday cheer. I absolutely love the holidays and everything that comes with them: a slower pace (when I’m intentional!), decorating the house and tree, baking and decorating cookies, shopping for gifts, and so much more.
Around Billings, we have a plethora of holiday traditions that many of us have come to know and love. Tromping through the cold and snow to find the perfect tree in Red Lodge, driving through town to find the best neighborhood light displays, stopping for Santa wherever we spot him, caroling and holiday concerts, church programs, local and regional holiday festivals… the list goes on and on. But this year, there’s a whole new tradition in town, and it’s definitely going to become a must-experience on the holiday bucket list each year.
With literally 10+ million twinkling lights, festive food and drinks, S’more Huts, and more, Josh Benson and his partners are bringing Holiday Nights to ZooMontana as a brand-new event meant to create an immersive holiday experience. “I drove through ZooLights in 2019, and while we enjoyed it, I saw this beautiful venue that could do so much more,” Benson said.
Having spent time at Sam’s Christmas Village in Wisconsin, Benson believed he could bring something similar to Billings. So, he reached out to friends, Pete Carlson (a contractor) and Tom Cusciotto (a marketer), and pitched the idea. Together, they are delivering Holiday Nights at ZooMontana.
As the inaugural event, this year’s features are just the tip of the iceberg for what’s to come:
“We are utilizing about 1/3 of the Zoo for a walk-through Christmas event for Billings and beyond. We don’t want to be stale, and we’re already planning what future years will look like,” Benson explained. “We want different features, like an ice rink and kids’ activities. This first year is about getting the lights up and turned on and the community excited about a new holiday tradition.”
The trio is preparing to work out any possible kinks in this first year. They’ve planned for traffic flow and strategized on how to keep the Zoo a safe and welcoming place. As they encounter obstacles, they’ll adjust course. Assuming all things go as planned, Holiday Nights will keep growing, and within the next 3 to 5 years, the event will take over the entire Zoo from front to back.
For anyone worried about losing the traditional ZooLights experience, rest assured. “The ‘old’ ZooLights will still be on, and we will offer horse and carriage rides through the vintage area,” said Benson.
WHAT TO EXPECT
People who purchase tickets this year will find themselves among more than 10 million – yes, million – Christmas lights. These lights will be part of 18 larger-than-life displays, including a 15-foot-tall moose, a 40-foot-tall Christmas tree, a massive castle in the Sensory Garden, a nativity scene in the barn, and Santa will take over the amphitheater for attendees to take photos with the man in red. Everything will be decorated to replicate the mystical North Pole with music and ambiance at every turn.
“We’re breaking the walking tour into three distinct zones: Santa’s Stage, the Sensory Garden with 500 twinkling snowflakes, the giant castle and tree lights, and the main courtyard full of upbeat holiday energy. Each area will be magical, and the experience will feel a bit different as the environment transforms,” Benson explained.
As if that’s not enough, Holiday Nights delivers various add-ons to enrich your experience. Nine S'more Huts are available – canvas tents with wide openings that are fully furnished and decorated with holiday care. These include a campfire for roasting marshmallows, Hershey bars, graham crackers, and servers to bring food and drink.
And don’t forget the horse and carriage rides through the Vintage ZooLights experience.
The event also features festive food and beverage, with every item themed for the holidays. There will be baked goods, snacks, a dinner option, and an adult bar with signature Christmas cocktails.
“No matter where you are at Holiday Nights when you leave your car, you enter a world that is quintessentially Christmas. You’re fully enveloped in the holiday theme,” noted Benson.
The trio has big plans for the future of Holiday Nights. “Assuming we get the community support for this event [that] we expect, we plan to bring in Mrs. Claus’ Kitchen for children to decorate Christmas cookies.” The group is also working on plans for an ice rink and other robust additions, including actors and actresses working the event, partnerships with city choirs, Billings Symphony Orchestra and Chorale, and much more.
And for those concerned about ZooLights as we know it, that experience is part of the plans. “We’re working on additions for traditional ZooLights,” shared Benson, “with plans for enhanced displays supporting the vintage favorites. We’ll have music playing throughout, 3-D displays, and more.”
HOW TO GET YOUR TICKETS
Purchasing tickets in advance is encouraged as there are a limited number available. And knowing numbers ahead of time helps Benson and his team prepare with proper staff to support parking and all the other available experiences.
To get your tickets, log on to www.holiday-nights.com. Stay in the loop by finding Holiday Nights on Facebook and Instagram.
**Please note: In our November/December calendar, we had mistakenly listed the incorrect ticket information for Holiday Nights at ZooMontana. Our apologies for any confusion! Tickets are $12.50/youth (ages 12 and younger); $21/adult**
With any event, parking can get tricky. Plan ahead for ease when attending Holiday Nights!
- Paid parking will be available inside the Zoo property for just $5, with a shuttle available to bring people to the main entrance.
- Additional no-cost parking will be available across Shiloh Road at Pierce RV. The road will be police protected to ensure safe crossing. Parking will not be available on the shoulders of Shiloh but is an option on Pierce Parkway.
Holiday Nights is working with the City of Billings and Billings Police to ensure safety for all when attending the event. Please be cautious when driving anywhere in the area, as many families will be present.
Kelly McCandless is a Billings native who loves a well-planned adventure, being outdoors when the weather is nice, historic fiction and hot coffee. She’s passionate about writing, cooking, education, travel and doing all of these things with her husband Ryan and their two incredible daughters
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