By Connor Dziawura | November 5, 2021
Thirty years in, ZooLights has become something of an annual tradition.
Each year, as winter approaches and the weather begins to cool, the popular production returns, attracting families from around the Valley to celebrate the holidays by seeing Phoenix Zoo in a new light.
Presented by SRP, the seasonal display of lights returns to the zoo beginning at 5:30 p.m. most days from November 24 to January 15 in its traditional walk-thru format, with special dates slated for drive-thru and sensory-friendly versions. Tickets must be purchased online in advance.
And its scale is “massive,” according to ZooLights supervisor Justin Davis.
“It’s almost our entire zoo except for our Children’s Trail,” Davis says. “So, I mean, it’s a pretty massive footprint that we have. We’re probably in the realm of about 3 million lights now, like just with everything that we do with our trees, with our armatures, our specialty lights.”
Davis describes the millions of colorful LED lights and hundreds of displays and armatures as a mix of new and old. In addition to fan-favorite lit animal sculptures like lions, tigers and the dinosaur Fran, he says Phoenix Zoo is introducing a herd of 12 buffaloes. Other new critters attendees can check out include two “oversized” black widows as well as an oversized ant colony with four ants and an ant hill.
Designed by artist Russell Ronat, 13 illuminated mixed-media paintings of endangered species are special this year. Featuring an elephant, hawksbill sea turtle, Amur leopard, Bornean orangutan, wolf and Bali mynah, among others, the pieces are part of Ronat’s Project Holocene, an international traveling art exhibition to bring attention and funding to wild animal conservation. Though some of the pieces are prints of Ronat’s previous creations, Davis says others were made custom for the zoo.
“He made prints of them and then he went in and used different mediums, like different types of paints and varnishes and lacquers and pencil, all different mediums, so if you come during the day and see the portrait or the picture, it’s really pretty, it’s great, but then if you were to come back at night, it’s like it’s almost a whole different picture because it’s illuminated from the backside of it,” he explains.
The Wildlife Lantern Safari, returning this year with an estimated 60 or more glowing lanterns, adds another element.
“They’re like Chinese lanterns, so they have a light skin on them, and then they go through — it’s actually a third party that does that — and they do airbrush work on it,” Davis explains. “They actually do a really good job, and some of them are massive. They’re really cool. They just kind of help switch it up.”
Two Music-in-Motion Light Shows, which Davis says will include the music of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, will also keep the seasonal mood going.
“And now what that is, is around our main lake, after you walk in, we have a giant globe and then 11 pillars in the middle of the lake, and then all the trees that are around the lake are wrapped and then they all synced by a computer to dance along with the music that’s playing,” Davis explains.
Families can see these sights and more through the regular Walk-Thru ZooLights or the drive-thru Cruise ZooLights. The latter was a new addition last year, due to the pandemic. And seeing as it was a success, according to Davis, the zoo decided to do it again with limited dates, though more could be added with demand.
Foot traffic will be closed for Cruise ZooLights nights, which also won’t have the Music-in-Motion Light Shows. Davis says drivers can tune their radios to a station synced to the displays, or they can roll down their windows to hear music playing throughout the zoo.
“We still want to give that as an option because our ZooLights trails have grown so much over the last year or two that the elderly or very young children, they don’t want to have to walk the entire trail,” Davis explains. “So, we did make Cruise ZooLights an option still this year for those who don’t want to walk, but we are mostly back to walking.”
Ahead of the formal launch of ZooLights, the Phoenix Zoo will put on a sensory-friendly version on November 10 with reduced stimuli for those who may otherwise not be able to attend. This includes individuals with PTSD, autism, ADHD, ADD, early onset dementia, anxiety and strokes.
Special accommodations include smaller crowds, quieter music, no Music-in-Motion Light Shows, static or slow-moving lights on the Arizona Trail, reduced light movement where possible throughout the rest of the zoo, Sensory Stations throughout the zoo, and the inclusion of a Quiet Room in the C.W. & Modene Neely Education and Event Center.
“This is our first year we’re doing this, so we reached out to a couple of other companies that have been like this, just to kind of get a feel for it,” Davis says. “This is new to us, so we’ll probably learn a lot this year, and I’m hoping we can keep it up and we can do it for more than just one year.”
Along the way at ZooLights this season, vendors will remain open so guests can warm up with hot cocoa or enjoy snacks or other concessions.
“The biggest thing about ZooLights is it’s a very tradition-based thing,” Davis says. “A lot of our guests are return guests because it’s just become a holiday tradition for them.”
When: Various times November 24 to January 15
Where: Phoenix Zoo, 455 N. Galvin Parkway, Phoenix
Cost: Walk-Thru/Sensory-Friendly ZooLights: $20 general admission per person, $16 per zoo member, free for children 2 and younger. Cruise: $75 general admission per vehicle, $60 per zoo member vehicle
Info: phoenixzoo.org/zoolights, phoenixzoo.org/events/sensory-friendly-zoolights