By Jean Janes
For a few winter weeks each year, Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium transforms into Zoolights—a frosted panorama of glittering color. More than 500,000 lights shroud plants, trees, and walkways. Vignettes of flying birds, jumping fish, and frolicking creatures dance throughout the landscape. Gigantic figures loom among meticulously crafted designs that light the way through a vista of ethereal glow. As though appearing by magic, this conversion from Zoo to Zoolights is the culmination of months of hard work and years of experience by park personnel.
While most of us are saying our farewells to summer, the crew at Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium is already planning and preparing for their winter Zoolights production. Kris Sherman, the Zoo’s Public Relations Coordinator, provides some insight into the extraordinary process the staff undertakes to decorate the park. She explains that Chris Boustedt, known as their “Zoolights Lead,” begins months in advance of opening day. “He actually starts about the middle of September, just checking things, making sure everything is ready and all of the lights are ready to go. They actually start stringing lights around October 1.”
Before a single light is strung, designs are reevaluated, reinvented, and new displays are created. This year, Mount Rainier got a complete overhaul. Standing fifteen and a half feet tall, Sherman explains that Chris Boustedt took extra care to make the mountain look as real to life as possible using photos from which to reproduce the colors and nuances. “When it’s lit, you can see glaciers on it,” Sherman says, attesting to his success.
Solving problems and fine tuning displays is another important aspect of the planning process. A long-established Zoolights feature, the Flame Tree, required particular consideration this year. The Flame Tree has been a beloved display since the first years of Zoolights. Adorned in dazzling purple with a brilliant green trunk, the original Flame Tree succumbed to ice storms and disease, but the staff chose not to omit the display.
“It’s been a Zoolights icon and a crowd favorite for years and years,” Sherman explains. A new tree had to be selected, but true to the original. “They used the exact same number of lights—30,030 lights. So, it’s in a slightly different location, but not very far from where the other one was, and people love it.”
A new feature created this year is the polar bear panorama. Three dazzling white bears stand on deep blue glaciers. Sherman explains that this year, Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium wanted to highlight the polar bears. “They’re a huge part of our conservation mission,” she adds. With conservation in mind, nearly all the lights used this year are energy-saving LEDs.
The tremendous effort of constructing the displays is undertaken by people who are currently employed at Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium. Kris explains, “They are all members of our operations staff so they all have other jobs besides Zoolights. They’re the people who do all the janitorial work, do all the maintenance, do all the plumbing, the electrical—so they all pitch in on Zoolights. They manage to get it all done in between doing their other jobs. “
Having been building the exhibits for twenty-five years now, the level of expertise and experience is unparalleled. “We have a team of people who have a lot of knowledge. Our assistant operations manager was in charge of Zoolights for years, so he’s got a deep and rich history. Many of them (the staff) have been doing this for more than twenty years so they’re all very familiar with it,” Sherman explains.
Now ready for visitors, extra hands are still necessary to operate Zoolights smoothly. Sherman explains the routine: “Every day, the Zoolights crew comes in at 1 p.m. and they go through and check everything, make sure everything is working, and all the connections are solid… they all do double duty during Zoolights.”
Extra shifts are needed to extend operating hours. The park visitors are able to visit several attractions and partake in various amenities normally available during daytime hours. The gift shop sells wands that light up and flash and the café continues to serve their menu. The carousel remains open and camel rides are available for the extended hours.
During the especially busy nights—the weekends and the nights nearest the Christmas holiday—employees help direct traffic and assist visitors with parking. With all the staff chipping in, Sherman sums up the attitude: “It’s kind of a Zoo-wide operation, and everyone takes immense pride in it, in Zoolights, in the fact that we are a Puget Sound tradition and people treasure Zoolights. It’s a lot of fun.”
Zoolights has charmed over two million visitors since it opened in 1988, and the dedicated staff at Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium will continue in their labor of lights, keeping Zoolights going strong for another 25 winters.
5 p.m. to 9 p.m. nightly (closed Dec. 24)
Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium
5400 N. Pearl St., Tacoma, WA