For many families, the Oregon Zoo’s ZooLights provides an instant, twinkling immersion into the wonders of the season. The Zoo’s winter showcase is ideal for people with small kids, older kids and no kids. Walking the grounds, enjoying the animals, listening to live music and smiling at more than 600 light displays — it’s no surprise that ZooLights is Oregon’s most popular paid attraction.
Starting November 21 and running through December 31, the Oregon Zoo, located at 4001 SW Canyon Road in Portland, hopes to break the 200,000-person attendance record it set last year.
Its optimism lies in the fact that ZooLights refuses to rest on its laurels, working every year since it began in 1988 to engineer and introduce new ways to delight its visitors. From giant, fluctuating murals and glowing tunnels of lights, to animated animals, the event’s designers are always brainstorming dazzling displays.
“Our artists really get into it, and we start planning for the new displays in January, right after the event,” said Russell Guinn, the Oregon Zoo’s event technical coordinator. “For example, our illuminated carousel took three years to design and build, and the dragon, which has 14,000 lights, took two years.”
Guinn pointed out that no detail is too small. “If you look closely at our dragon, you’ll notice that the light diodes in the rings of smoke fade slightly the further it gets from its snout.”
This season’s new installation is the Sea Lion Diorama, which evokes the image of waves washing on the beach across an entire wall of 17,000 lights. Plus, each year, ZooLights adds a special hide-and-seek feature: Anyone who can locate the six ladybugs hidden throughout the zoo can enter to win a gift certificate at the Zoo Store.
Then there are the enduring favorites: illuminated jumping frogs, a green and yellow anaconda twisted around an overhead limb, the swooping penguins, a triceratops peeking from the brush, bowing giraffes and, my favorite, a three-dimensional crocodile.
The zoo even transforms its concert lawn into an African river scene with 12,000 lights. The glittering canvas includes a parade of Asian elephants, 3-D hippos and assorted birds and animals. What are Asian elephants doing lumbering along in an African landscape? Just go with it.
In addition to feasts for the eyes, nightly live music performances at the Elephant Plaza Stage will add to the event’s holiday vibe.
Volunteers are the engine.
The heart of the event lies with Zoo volunteers.
It takes a team of about 20 volunteers and staff members to install the 600 light displays, and another 70 volunteers and staff members to host the event each evening.
This year’s event will be missing one of its most treasured volunteers, Nancy Parr, who passed away this past summer. Nancy was a zoo volunteer for more than 20 years, helping with zoo programs from Head Start and concerts, to buying all the elephant ears for Packy the elephant’s birthday every year. She never wanted to call attention to her involvement, but it’s worth noting that she generously donated the gorgeous Snowfall Tree along ZooLight’s main walkway.
Also, the Zoo hasn’t forgotten the importance of conserving energy: 80 percent of the 1,365,000 lights used are LEDs, or light-emitting diodes, which consume far less electricity than standard holiday lights.
A Word About the Train.
One of the more popular ZooLights attractions is the light-covered train, which has a separate charge and starts operating around 5:15 p.m. It tours light displays that can only be viewed by rail. But the lines are long — as long as an hour or more — and stay that way. “I recommend that people take a walking tour of the displays and then wait in line for the train,” Guinn said. “We will have performers on stilts and twirling glowing hula hoops to try and keep folks in line entertained.”
Visitors can skip the train and purchase an admission ticket to walk ZooLights. People who change their mind can buy a train ticket at the booth next to the train station.
Inside: The Cox Family from Camas, WA with a snow man light display during ZooLights.
Thumbnail: The Oregon Zoo’s steam train during ZooLIghts. Photos © Oregon Zoo / Michael Durham.