It is July in Florida, so you probably have noticed that it's insanely hot. Tampa's Lowry Park Zoo noticed, too.
Although families like mine haven't used our zoo passes since the heat index hit the triple digits, the new Sunset Celebration at the zoo beckoned to us over the weekend.
The zoo is open until 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday nights through Aug. 6. The extended-hours event is included in its annual pass and "pay for a day, come back all year" programs. Tickets for admission after 4 p.m. on event days are $19.95.
Habitats in the Asian and African realms of the zoo, along with Primate World, are illuminated after dark. A few shows have been added, including a 6:30 p.m. barnyard animal display at the Wallaroo Station — where the popular splash pad, my toddler can tell you, is most assuredly open and operating into the evening. Rides were operating until dusk, too.
The crowd picked up a bit around dusk, but was never a crush of humanity. We finally got to experience the behind-the-scenes Expedition Safari tram ride after years of avoiding long lines. Even the animals seemed more relaxed in the evening — the sloth bear more slothy, the elephants more playful.
Here's a quick guide to the experience, which was sweaty but much more comfortable than a daytime zoo excursion:
We were greeted by performers on stilts and soon encountered selfie-friendly acrobats dressed as monkeys. Zookeepers had a steady stream of animals out and about — we saw parrots, snakes, porcupines and a horse as we zigzagged through attractions.
The DJ in the blessedly cool Safari Lounge was a total kid-pleaser, and sent me on a flashback to middle school dances.
A sunset jamboree at the elephant and giraffe area in Safari Africa featured dancers, bagpipes and a toast — champagne or apple juice, no charge.
The newly remodeled event yard has live music from a tribute band (Jimmy Buffett for opening weekend, but that will rotate) at 8 p.m., followed by a laser light show finale at 9:30 p.m. My 2-year-old wasn't going to make it past 9 p.m., but the light show looks super cool in photos.
Lowry Park has specialty dining set up throughout the park and a dining plan option for this event. A couples plan ($21.95 for members, $24.95 regular) gets you five meals or drinks, while the family plan ($34.95, $39.95) gets you 10.
Word to the wise: Don't be lured by the air-conditioned Safari Lodge for this plan, as we were. That location had pretty standard cafeteria pizza. Get your meals at one of the specialty stands outside and take it into the cool lodge to eat. I can vouch for the roast pork and red beans. We heard others happy with street tacos and barbecue from different stations.
The zoo is asking guests to exit through the event yard, not the front gates. I can only hope that knowing this saves one other family with a cranky kid from walking back and forth twice to get to the parking lot.