Planning and setting it up take the whole year. Some twenty-two people are required to erect and maintain it. 7,200 working hours are put into it. And it all leads to more than two million lights sparkling, dancing, and brilliantly illuminating the Lincoln Park Zoo for 35 of the darkest nights of the year.
ZooLights, which opened the day after Thanksgiving and continues through January 6 (find the schedule here), is a free-admission, beloved holiday tradition in Chicago, now in its 24th year. Last year, 600,000 people came to see the hundred-plus light displays, watch six to eight massive blocks of ice transformed into trees and animals by chainsaws every night, sip hot chocolate and mulled wine, and visit the animals at a time when it typically wouldn't occur to them. “We want people to have an unforgettable experience and come to the zoo during a time when they normally wouldn’t come, during the winter at nighttime,” says Josh Rupp, the Zoo’s Director of Events. “All the events we put on, including ZooLights, exist only to support the mission of the Zoo and its conservation and education efforts.”
So, despite the enormity of the ZooLights project, all of the displays and lights have to be organized around the animals and their care. “Our first priority is animal welfare,” Rupp says.
And animals, of course, are abundant in the light spectacles: alligators, apes, penguins, polar bears, zebras, and more creatures, all made out of LED lights, appear alongside whimsical holiday tableaux featuring gingerbread, evergreens, and Santa. Inside some of the Zoo’s buildings, such as the Helen Brach Primate House and the Regenstein Center for African Apes, visitors trying to warm up can find vintage ornament-inspired decorations and fun house mirrors, all designed by the Chicago-based firm Ivan Carlson & Associates. New this year are elaborate “dancing” displays set to holiday music on the South Lawn, rechristened the Wonderlawn, along with vivid up-lighting that highlights the Lawn’s natural trees.
This being the 150th anniversary of the Lincoln Park Zoo, the east side entrance is extravagantly decked out for maximum impact. Twelve LED peacock feathers, stretching eight feet high, lead the way to an illuminated arch and a #ZooLights sign perfect for Instagram, while the brand-new Searle Visitor Center, which opened the week before Thanksgiving, is worth seeing on its own.
There are also various events throughout the next month and a half, from a holiday market on Tuesday, November 27, to adult-centered nights on November 29 and December 6, to Monday Family Nights and Breakfast with Santa on December 16.
Where do those millions of lights and all those decorations go during the rest of the year? “We try to use every little corner of the Zoo to store things,” Rupp says, laughing. Amazingly, some of the electrical infrastructure required for ZooLights begins coming out over the summer, and trees and parts of the Zoo begin to be wrapped with lights as early as October. “If you look hard enough, you might see some of it,” Rupp says. And while many of the displays return year after year, they might be found in a new location, so that “it’s kind of like an Easter egg hunt for people to find their favorite displays,” Rupp says. “We want to evoke that nostalgia and those fond memories, and create new ones every year.”