Sure Santa is the star of the Christmas holiday, but what about all of his hard workers that help him get everything done? When do they get their celebration? Well, for 9 of Santa’s furry friends, there’s a special holiday celebration that’s all about the reindeer. The Issaquah Reindeer Festival, held annually at the Cougar Mountain Zoo, attracts thousands of visitors each December. And there’s a good reason why. This charming festival (now in its 24th year!) is the perfect holiday outing for pint-sized believers and adults alike.

Festival dates and hours:
December 1 through December 23
10:00 am – 4:30 pm

December 26 through December 30
11:00 am – 3:00 pm

Cost: $12.50 General (13+), $11.50 Seniors, $10.50 Children (2-12), Under 2 Free
(Special discounts for groups of 12 or more).

Get there: The Cougar Mountain Zoo is located on the north facing slope of Cougar Mountain–surrounded by breathtaking views of the Cascade Mountain range and a beautiful view of Lake Sammamish. From Seattle, head east on Interstate 90 to Exit 15. Turn right and head south on 17th Avenue NW (also known as SR 900 and Issaquah Renton Road). Turn right on Newport Way and head west. When you get to SE 54th Street, turn left and head south up the hill to the Cougar Mountain Zoo landmark sign. Parking is free.

Travel time: The Cougar Mountain Zoo is located 15 miles east of Seattle so the trip should only take you 30 minutes from downtown Seattle.

What to wear: It’s a good idea to dress the kiddos in layers, wear a warm coat, and bring along a hat and mittens. Since Cougar Mountain Zoo is located atop of a mountain, the temps can plunge rapidly.

What to bring: There are several “treat stations” located throughout the festival. Bring along some quarters so the kiddos can feed holiday treats to the animals and you can get some cute photos opps. Most of the walkways are paved so you can bring along the stroller. However, the paths are a little narrow and the trip up to Santa’s House is not paved so we suggest leaving the stroller in the car.

What to do: When you enter the Cougar Mountain Zoo, you will immediately be greeted by one of Santa’s elves who will give you a cup of apples to feed to Dasher, Donner, Blitzen, and the rest of the sleigh-pulling gang. After you hand-feed the reindeer, make your way up to Santa’s House. This whimsical house, decorated in an animal theme, is where you can get your picture taken with the jolly ol’ fella. Pictures cost $15 or you can take your own photos for $5. This Santa has a real beard and takes his time with each kiddo, making the experience both enjoyable and magical for the littlest of believers.

After you visit with Santa, make your way down the hill and stop by Santa’s Post Office. Here, you can write a letter (or draw a picture!) for Santa and put it in his personal mailbox. And if you stop by between 12:00 pm and 2:00 pm, you can get your face painted by one of his elves!

In the middle of the festival, there’s a nice place to enjoy a picnic lunch and listen to holiday stories told by Santa’s elves (on the hour all day long Dec 1-23, 1:00 pm only Dec 26-30). You can also sit in Santa’s gigantic sleigh and listen to holiday tunes, while taking in the breathtaking views of the Cascade Mountains.

As you make your way through the festival, you will definitely want to wander through the Magic Forest. From lemurs to alpacas to wallabies, you will see a wide array of zoo animals along with some spectacular Bengal tigers and two subspecies of mountain lions. And make sure to read the animal signs along the way since each sign tells a unique story of helping Santa.

As you make your way back to the festival entrance, be sure to stop by Santa’s Gift Shop and check out Santa’s Gallery Museum. Here, you can pick up a holiday gift (or two!) for the animal lover on your list and see the largest collection of animal bronze sculptures (of any zoo!) in the country. All proceeds from the gift shop, zoo admission, and other activities benefit the reindeer, their animal friends, and educational programs at the Cougar Mountain Zoo.

What to eat: If you and the kiddos need to warm up, there’s a small snack shop that sells hot cider and cocoa as well as cookies, kettle corn, and other tasty treats. The Snack Shop is open Dec. 1-23. After that date, visit the Wild Treasures Gift Shop (from Dec. 26-30) for your treats and snacks.

Bonus: Want to come back to the zoo again? Bring a new, unwrapped present to the Reindeer Festival and receive one free child’s admission to Cougar Mountain Zoo for your next visit during January through March 2012.

Online: Visit the Cougar Mountain Zoo website for more information about this unique, Northwest holiday tradition.

Tell us your favorite memory visiting Santa and his reindeer. Where did you see them?

— Kristina Moy

All photos courtesy of Cougar Mountain Zoo