By JULIANNE HEBERLEIN, Capital News Service

WASHINGTON – Each holiday season since 2007, after the animals go to sleep, the rest of the Smithsonian National Zoo comes to life as a colorful winter wonderland.

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More than half a million LED lights are transforming the zoo’s grounds into a bright holiday celebration this year, with a new outdoor art installation, 3D glowing animal sculptures, a laser light show and a virtual experience featuring the zoo’s pandas.

Lion lanterns are one of the features of the Smithsonian’s National Zoo annual ZooLights festival. (Heather Kim/Capital News Service)

The ZooLights display started 13 years ago to increase foot traffic during the zoo’s off-season, zoo spokeswoman Pamela Baker-Masson said.

“Because we’re so weather dependent, we wanted to have a special community-focused event,” Baker-Masson said. “ZooLights seemed to be the perfect answer and it has been.”

On Wednesday evening, families and couples stopped to take in the glow of the new animal-shaped lanterns lining the central walkway as the warm, sweet smell of funnel cake wafted through the crisp air. A pair of monkeys, a flock of flamingos, a group of cheetahs, a family of lions, a couple of pandas and a herd of zebras, among other animal shapes, illuminated the grounds.

Rebecca Hankins, a Washington resident, attended ZooLights for the first time in 2016. This year, she came back with a friend to take in the new attractions.

“The animal lanterns were really cool,” Hankins said. “The new additions made (ZooLights) more interactive for kids and friends this year.”

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The immersive outdoor art installation, “Entre Les Rangs,” located adjacent to the zoo’s lion and tiger exhibit, becomes a walkable, wheat-like field of light. This week, visitors strolled through hundreds of glowing crystalline reflectors as they swayed with the wind.

A laser light show dances along to Christmas carols like “Walking in a Winter Wonderland,” with animations of animal characters, including rabbits, ostriches and songbirds, projected on the side of the Elephant Community Center.

“(ZooLights) just keeps getting bigger and bigger with LED lights, more trees are wrapped, more decorations and more activities,” Baker-Masson said.

Aside from this year’s new additions, returning attractions include the ZooTubes slide down the hill near the lion and tiger exhibits, the Zoo Choo Choo train ride, a classic carousel and live musical performances from local groups and schools.

Sarah Heydemann and Alexandra Waters, both Washington residents, attended the light festival for the first time together this year.

“ZooLights is like a very quiet outdoor club,” Heydemann said, commenting on the lively and upbeat atmosphere.

Both of them visited the new outdoor art installation but Waters said the light reflectors were not lighting up to their full potential.

Still, Waters said she “would definitely come back — probably tomorrow.”

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The light festival is free to the public and will be open each evening from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m until Jan. 1, except on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve.