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Setting up for Zoolights
Setting up for Zoolights

You can’t set up 700,000 LED lights overnight! It takes time… months, actually. The Zoolights crew at Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium spent most of October and November- rain or shine, warm or cold (mostly, cold)- prepping for the region’s classic holiday lights extravaganza and creating new displays.

Things are a bit different this year due to Covid-19, such as one-way paths and face coverings required for everyone 5 and up, but the traditional displays that have lit up the community for over three decades remain the same, providing comfort to many families during these tough times. That means the Zoolights crew was already hard at work in October setting up the iconic Flame Tree, 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 Operation 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).

two men decorate tree with christmas lights
Zoolights crew puts lights on trees all around the Zoo

By early November, the Zoolights crew had already begun setting up the figurines- like the 3-D polar bear family and the 117-foot-long Tunnel of Lights (longer than ever before!). 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 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.”

100 foot wide lit up octopus
100-foot-wide giant Pacific octopus shines bright atop the old North Pacific Aquarium

Another Zoolights project that took a lot of their attention this year: creating a tribute to the Seattle Kraken, placed near the lighted giant octopus.

“It made perfect sense to honor Seattle’s newest team,” said Clarke. “We spent hours in the shop playing with a few different designs to get it just right.”

Nearly every display at Zoolights is designed and built in house by the talented operations staff. Other new displays this year include nocturnal flying bats near Red Wolf Woods and scampering mice “running” through Kids’ Zone. The crew also brought back some old figurines that haven’t been seen in recent years- two green dragons. They refit the dragons with LED lights and hung them in the picnic pavilion.

“We brought them back for tradition’s sake!” said Clarke.

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

“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 (maybe not their hands) year after year.

tunnel of lights
Zoolights crew puts up 117-foot-long Tunnel of Lights

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

32 years: Age of the Flame Tree

100 feet: Width of the giant Pacific octopus

117 feet: Length of the Tunnel of Lights

24,000 lights: On the LED octopus

30,030 lights: On the Flame Tree

Over 700,000 lights: Total number for Zoolights 2020

Zoolights runs through Jan. 3. Hours are 5 p.m. – 9 p.m. 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.