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Prepping for Zoolights
Prepping for Zoolights

How do you get a 100-foot octopus onto an aquarium roof?

No, it’s not the first line of a joke. It’s just one of the challenges faced by the Zoolights crew at Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium as they spend most of October and November prepping for the decades-long holiday lights show. But it’s a challenge they clearly relish.

Zip ties and poles

“The first thing we do is decorate all the trees and bushes,” explains Justin Pfeiffer, lead Zoolights technician.

 zoolights prep trees close
Putting up landscape lights is the first part of the job.

That can take a while. Zoolights is not just famous for its creative animal-themed displays, but for a whole zoo’s worth of sparkling LED lights – this year, over 700,000, the most ever. And since the Zoo’s landscaping is extensive enough to be featured in leading horticulture publications, that means a heck of a lot of shrubs to cover with multicolored mini-lights.

“The trick is to tie the strands together,” notes Pfeiffer. (All the Zoolights zip-ties are reusable, which is more environmentally-friendly.) “And our most-used tool is the long hooked stick. You can reach 20 feet high with that.”

One big decorating challenge that most home-owners don’t have is to string lights through an entire bamboo forest. In the Asian Forest Sanctuary, zip-ties again come in handy to stop lights from succumbing to gravity on vertical bamboo.

“We also take a lot of care around the cacti and agaves,” Pfeiffer says with a wry smile.

zoolights prep walrus
The 3D Zoolights animals – like the walruses and giant octopus – are made from lights strung over wire frames.

Animals in LED

Then, after the crew has cordoned off display areas with rope lights, they start the fun part – putting up all the animal figurines. From glowing polar bears to a walrus family perched on “icebergs” made of wooden pallets, from skating penguins to the diving 3D green sea turtle, assembling a second zoo of creatures in lights takes weeks – all done in the early hours of the morning before guests arrive.

But the biggest animal of them all is the giant Pacific octopus that this year is back in its old haunt – atop the North Pacific Aquarium. Glowing orange and pink, it’s a sight no other lights display can possibly match.

“We assemble it in sections,” explains Pfeiffer. “The orange lights are set onto big rolls of mesh, one for each arm and the head. First, we unroll them in the shop to test them all. Then we lift up the sections of the body “skeleton,”, made of plywood and PVC pipe. Finally we lift all the mesh onto the roof and unroll each section by hand. It takes five of us a full day to do.”

Taking it higher

zoolights flame tree lift
The famous Flame Tree takes a lift to decorate.

This Zoolights, visitors will still see all their old favorites: the 30,030 magenta lights on the Flame Tree, the blue-and-green of the Seahawks 12th Man, lime-green “cacti”, the roaring tiger head, diving blue orcas near the two Narrows Bridges and more.

This year, Pfeiffer’s crew have some new ideas – and two brand-new buildings to play with.

“The Pacific Seas Aquarium makes the perfect wall for a light projection,” says Pfeiffer, who just bought four projectors that cast a blue, water-like shimmer. He’s also planning snowflake projections dusting the ground near the penguins.

And somewhere in the Zoo will be a familiar Northwest creature that’s slightly larger than life – Sasquatch.

“We were wondering what new things to make this year – something Zoo-related or a Northwest icon,” says Deanna Wendt, who is making the mythic forest figure. “Then I realized – Sasquatch bridged that gap.”

After drawing three Sasquatches in various stages of walking, Wendt projected them six feet high onto three plywood boards. She traced the figures, then drilled holes into the outlines to push through lights, which will be timed to show Big Foot walking through the trees.

Where will he be? Well, Wendt and Pfeiffer still haven’t decided – so Zoolights visitors will just have to keep a look-out.

“Just like the real Sasquatch,” smiles Wendt.

zoolights hub lights
The Zoolights view from the main plaza.

By mid-November, Pfeiffer and his crew have usually finished the Zoolights set-up. All that’s left is fine-tuning.

“I come in around 5am or 6am for a few days to turn everything on and test it,” Pfeiffer says. “Just to make sure it’s all working.”

And then the Zoolights fun can begin. (Find all Zoolights details here.)

-Rosemary Ponnekanti, PDZA

Zoolights By-the-Numbers

1 day: Time taken to assemble the Narrows Bridges
5 feet: Wingspan of the LED eagles
6 people: To lift the roaring tiger head
30 years: Age of the Flame Tree
100 feet: Width of the giant Pacific octopus
24,000 lights: On the LED octopus
2,240 suckers: On a real octopus
700,000 lights: Total number for Zoolights 2018