It’s about more than just lights.
It’s spending quality time with family and creating long-lasting memories. It’s cupping hot cocoa and braving the chill (and the crowds) to be awed. It’s the embodiment of holiday spirit. In Tacoma, it’s a tradition, one that has drawn about 2 million people over the years.
Zoolights, Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium’s annual holiday event, celebrates its 25th season this year.
It’s a favorite time of year for those tasked with winding more than 500,000 lights around the grounds and setting up elaborate depictions of Mount Rainier and the twin Tacoma Narrows bridges, which features miniature lights to look like driving cars.
“It’s a part of who we are. It’s really in our blood,” said operations director Scott Clarke, who has overseen Zoolights since the late 1990s.
The meaningfulness of Zoolights runs deep for many in the region, too.
Men and women who grew up attending the show now take their own children. Grandparents relish the times they spent watching the children’s faces light up with glee and amazement at their favorite animal displays. Couples went on their first dates there and others started a life together with glowing lights as a backdrop.
Liz and Phillip Davis of Lakewood are one of those couples.
Liz Davis, 26, has attended Zoolights every year of her life. Her mother first took her when she was 1. As a little girl, she saw the billboards around town and pestered her parents to take her. When she got older, she ditched her folks but rounded up friends to stroll through her favorite holiday delight.
So when her boyfriend asked her mom for suggestions on where to propose in 2008, the answer was obvious: Zoolights, outside the monkey exhibit.
Phillip Davis, 29, enlisted one of Liz’s friends to draw a sign and decorate it with lights. He got permission from the zoo to place the sign. Then he walked her around the corner to where her family (and some curious strangers) were hiding.
She said yes and cried, and swore the lights were even brighter that night.
“We still go to Zoolights every year to keep the tradition going,” Liz Davis said. “I’ve been going since I was little and I’m planning to go forever. I would be devastated if they took it away.”
THEN AND NOW
Even back then the idea was hardly original.
Several zoos were looking for ways to bring visitors through the gates in the winter season, when worsening weather typically meant a drop in attendance and revenue.
Tom Otten, zoo director at the time, saw the Toledo Zoo put on a successful holiday light show in 1987 and decided Point Defiance could do the same.
“Ideas are cheap and implementation is everything,” he said. “Our staff was incredibly innovative and they did things that we’d never seen before. It was a lot more than just lighting up the zoo.”
Four staff members gathered children’s coloring books, projected images of animals on the wall and outlined them on pieces of plywood. Then they cut the shapes, drilled holes in the wood and lined them with lights.
Marla Waddell, a zoo keeper turned registrar, spearheaded the effort. She called the effect of the figurines “kindergartenish” because of their simplicity.
The first year, in 1988, there were 30 figurines on display, mostly of farm animals like cows and pigs. Choirs were brought in to sing and complimentary hot chocolate and cider was served. Guests were asked to leave their comments in a book.
About 21,000 people turned out to ooh and aah at 55,000 twinkling lights.
“Even that first year, people thought it was a gift we’d given them,” Waddell said. “I feel that way, too. In those days, nobody else was doing anything like that. Now it’s become a tradition.”
By the second year, the event expanded to 72 displays and attendance more than tripled to 94,000.
The zoo’s operations department, which is in charge of stringing up the lights, strived to keep the classic, traditional feel. Things changed over the years, but mostly minor tweaks and upgrades.
Popular displays found new homes from time to time. Different colored lights adorned the trees and bushes, creating a unique kaleidoscope each year. Some figurines were retired and new displays rolled out. A recycling program was added for those wanting to get rid of old holiday lights.
About 2003, the zoo began moving toward green power and switching to energy-efficient LED lights that last longer. About 90 percent of the displays now use light emitting diode, which decorators say are brighter and add more twinkle to festive favorites like the Flame Tree.
Here’s a bonus: more reliable lighting has cut down on the number of workers needed to fix bulbs and test extension cords. It’s also saved staff members from warring against squirrels with a fetish for stealing lights and burying them in the dirt, forcing the zoo to spend more money replacing bulbs and more time setting up the displays a second or third time.
Because the crew has been working together so long, the event practically runs itself, said Clarke, who handed the oversight responsibilities to Chris Boustedt last year.
Boustedt, who started working at the zoo when he was a teenager, has enjoyed the new responsibility of deciding what tens of thousands of visitors will see at Zoolights.
“I like the creativity and the challenges it brings,” said Boustedt, 28. “People really appreciate it. It’s a cool thing to be a part of.”
The new boss has just one rule for the staff – orange and red lights are not allowed next to each other.
Preparation for Zoolights is pretty much year-round.
Operations workers fix faulty bulbs, wires and cords in their spare time. Employees from marketing, education and operations bandy ideas around about how to improve popular displays and which figurines could enhance the next event.
Crunch time begins the first week of October, when a crew of six to eight begins laying out the strings of lights, doing safety checks and ensuring one last time that every bulb is at its brightest.
There’s no specific plan for stringing the lights, though workers prefer to start near the main entrance. They hang thousands of blue, red, orange, green, purple and white on bushes and branches, and carefully lay them out as ground cover.
Weather can hamper the work – they have to be careful not to leave lights out in the rain for too long.
In 1995, Zoolights had to shut down Dec. 11 after strong winds blew away many of the lighted displays. In 2008, the event was closed for eight days because of a power outage and heavy snow.
More thought goes into putting up the major displays, mostly because it requires the entire crew to lift them into place.
By the time all the work is done, there will be 27 miles of lights and four miles of extension cords – roughly the distance from Tacoma to Olympia. (When the event started 25 years ago, crews used only five miles of lights.)
Attention then turns to directing traffic, crowd control and hitting the right breakers. Eight people sit at the controls each night, flipping 125 switches to bring Zoolights to life.
“Even though it takes a bit to put it up and take it down, it’s worth it,” deputy director John Houck said.
A POPULAR EVENT
The event has gained popularity and success over the years, becoming a boon to the zoo and the community.
Attendance has remained strong, with the 2011 turnout of 135,907 visitors – attributed to unusually pleasant weather – far surpassing the previous record of 116,523, set in 1997.
“It wasn’t just record-breaking, it was record-smashing,” Houck said. “Zoolights has helped immeasurably in making the community proud of the zoo and aquarium.”
In recent years, the smallest number of people the event has drawn totaled just over 93,000 people in 2010. This year, the goal is to bring at least 86,000 people through the gates to gaze at the glimmering lights.
High turnouts also mean a big boost in revenue, which the zoo relies on to fund things like animal husbandry and educational programs.
Last-year’s record attendance translated into Zoolights’ best financial year, when the show brought in $460,554. This year’s revenue is projected to drop to $167,179, an amount more in line with previous years.
In the last three years, the zoo and aquarium’s cost to put on Zoolights has ranged from $448,658 to $529,864. This year’s cost is projected to be about $489,000.
That doesn’t include the cost of electricity, which Point Defiance officials said can’t be broken out from the daily operations of the zoo and aquarium. But because more than 90 percent of the holiday lights now are LED, “Our electricity costs for Zoolights are minimal,” said Clarke, the operations manager.
Other expenditures typically include lights and cord purchases, shuttle buses, advertising and staff time.
Expenses are covered in part by revenue from ticket sales to Zoolights and from eight sponsors, which this year are contributing $44,500. (A ninth sponsor, KING 5 in Seattle, donates some television air time to Zoolights.)
Woodworth Capital, a property management company in Tacoma, has sponsored the rainbow display since Zoolights started.
President Jeff Woodworth said his father began the tradition, finding it a good way to give back to a community that has supported their family business for so long.
“We just think it’s a fantastic zoo, a real gem for Tacoma,” Woodworth said. “It draws people here and we like to support it. It’s a great asset to the community and we want to see it continue so others can enjoy it.”
This year, to bind the old with the new and celebrate Zoolights’ 25th year, a display that made its first appearance in 1988 has been brought back in the larger than life form – a 100-foot-tall orange and purple giant Pacific octopus atop the North Pacific Aquarium.
The octopus made it through the first few years of the event but was retired because of how cumbersome it was to set up. This time around, mesh and PVC piping replaced rebar.
Staff members are sure it’s going to be a crowd favorite.
Stacia Glenn: 253-597-8653