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Setting up for Zoolights
Setting up for Zoolights

Get your Zoolights tickets here

You can’t set up 800,000 LED lights overnight! It takes time. Months, actually. The Zoolights crew at Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium spends all of October and November – rain or shine, prepping for the region’s classic holiday lights extravaganza and creating new displays. It’s a huge team effort, and they rightfully take pride in keeping the tradition alive year after year.

The Zoolights crew is already hard at work setting up the iconic Flame Tree (did you know it’s been around since 1988!), celebratory Seahawks Tree, elusive Sasquatch, two Narrows bridges and many other popular displays from years past.

“The very first thing we do is check all the lights and make sure they still work,” said Operations Supervisor Scott Clarke. “Then we decorate all the trees and bushes during the month of October.”

Clarke says zip ties come in handy as they wrap the dozens and dozens of trees, shrubs, cacti, bamboo forest and pathways in mini-lights. (All the zip-ties are reusable, which is more environmentally-friendly).

man in tree setting up lights

By early November, the Zoolights crew begins setting up the figurines, like the 3-D polar bear family and TWO Tunnel of Lights. That’s right — we’ve added a second tunnel this year. It’s so popular, we doubled it! The biggest and most challenging display, the 100-foot-wide giant Pacific octopus, shines bright atop the old North Pacific Aquarium.

“We assemble it in sections,” explains Zoolights technician Justin Pfeiffer. “The orange lights are set onto big rolls of mesh, one for each arm and the head. First, we unroll them in the maintenance 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 staff members a full day to do.”

Nearly every display at Zoolights is built in-house by the talented operations staff.

“We focus on making displays that will last for years to come, and can hold up in winter weather,” said Clarke. “We’ve had years with windstorms, rainstorms and even snowstorms, but we work hard to always keep the lights shining.”people setting up tunnel of lights

In addition to the instagrammable tunnels of lights, staff are adding another perfect photo opportunity this year: butterfly wings! Pose in front of the lit-up wings.

man building butterfly for zoolights
Zoolights crew building a butterfly for Zoolights

By mid-November, most of the hard work of set-up will be done for the Zoolights crew, aside from a few last-minute touches. But their work doesn’t end once Zoolights begins.

“We constantly monitor all the lights and make sure they are all working correctly,” said Pfeiffer. “And after Zoolights ends, we work until every last light is put carefully away, which can take up to an entire month!”

Is all the hard work worth it?

“Definitely!” say both Clarke and Pfeiffer. They agree that seeing the Zoo transformed into a winter wonderland and seeing the smiles on families’ faces warms their hearts year after year.

Zoolights By-the-Numbers

1 day: Time to assemble the Narrows Bridges

5 feet: Wingspan of the LED swooping eagles

6 people: To lift the roaring tiger head

33 years: Age of the Flame Tree

34 years: Years that Zoolights has been around

100 feet: Width of the giant Pacific octopus

24,000 lights: On the LED octopus

30,030 lights: On the Flame Tree

Over 800,000 lights: Total number for Zoolights 2021

Zoolights runs through Jan. 2. Hours are 4:30pm – 10pm. nightly, except for a two-night closure on Dec. 24 and Dec. 25. To purchase your tickets for this longest-running and most-loved holiday light extravaganza in the region, click here. Zoolights is presented by BECU.