5:50 PM EST, December 5, 2012
You can call it humbuggery, but I had a pretty low-voltage reaction to ZooLights the first time I went to see it, probably 10 years ago.
I remember at the Lincoln Park Zoo's holiday season tribute to luminescence some lights in trees and some animal shapes more distinct than constellations but not as distinct as, say, the actual animals that were nearby. This is what all the advertising is about? This is what people seem to be turning into a holiday tradition?
Although my visit took place before the heyday of the word “meh,” that was the feeling. Meh.
Holiday Magic, Brookfield Zoo's equivalent to ZooLights (and its predecessor by 14 years, for those keeping score), had a similar effect on me the one time I visited it: I left my house on a cold December night to see light strands bent into animal shapes? That isn't an attraction; it's signage.
But things have changed. First, we've all been doing a great job making the December nights warmer, meaning it's a nicer outing. The zoos have not been standing pat: Holiday glowfests in the vicinity of wildlife have not only become the norm nationwide, they're a little bit like amusement parks. Theme parks add roller coasters every year. Holiday light shows pay ever more potent tribute to Thomas Edison and his wondrous candle replacement.
And I am, I must face it, getting softer. What once seemed like a simplistic attempt to convince people that something special was going on now strikes me as sort of sweet, a good-natured seasonable communal event in a culture where noncommercial examples of those are rare.
Other Chicagoans, obviously, agree. The monthlong high-wattage Brigadoons helped Brookfield and Lincoln Park set attendance records or near records last weekend, partly a response to the 60-degree weather but also because such events are etching themselves onto family holiday calendars. The displays were so popular that second, impromptu light shows took place outside the grounds: the slow parade of headlights moving slowly toward the parking lots.
Where did this begin? You don't hear this phrase often, but credit (or blame) Indianapolis, where the Indianapolis Zoo was the first, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums believes, to offer a holiday lights event, in 1968.
The Zoo Guild Auxiliary "were the ones that started it," says spokeswoman Carla Knapp, "kind of as a way to help raise some funds and get us through the winter."
As it turned out, they could have raised a lot more funds if they had patented the idea.
About half of the 223 members of the AZA now do a holiday lights show, says spokesman Steve Feldman. They bring in traffic during comparatively barren winter weeks. They remind people that zoos are open year-round. And they allow zoo staffers to exercise their naming genes.
While almost every institution calls its Halloween special event Boo at the Zoo, says Feldman, the year-end holiday lights shows get an array of names. Many other zoos use some variation on ZooLights (Zoolights, Zoo Lights) or Holiday Magic (Festival of Lights, Christmas Town, Christmas Lights Festival). Indy's is Christmas at the Zoo.
But the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium in Ohio goes with Wildlights. The Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville, Texas, offers Zoo Nights & Lights, while the Potter Park Zoo in Lansing, Mich., serves up Wonderland of Lights.
The best name I found in a quick survey was one used by the Toledo Zoo in Ohio and the Riverbanks Zoo and Garden in South Carolina: Lights Before Christmas.
At Lincoln Park Zoo, ZooLights, in the past decade, has gone from underwhelming me to almost the opposite.
On Saturday night, some 34,000 people, roughly 25,000 of them pushing or being pushed in strollers, maneuvered through the zoo amid a massive garlanded Santa, a gift shop dolled up like a seascape and lighted trees dancing to Christmas pop behind gray seals that, surely, would rather have just had a few fish thrown their way.
"Each year we try to make it as beautiful and spectacular as we possibly can," says Erika Kohler, the zoo's senior director of guest services.
There are more than 2 million lights there, the zoo figures, up by a million versus five years ago. It feels like a conservative estimate. There are lights in trees. Lights in a field. Lights shaped like penguins, like a dragon breathing fire, like an octopus next to a pig. There are rainbow light tunnels, just in case you ever wondered what it would be like to be an ornament in the middle of a Christmas tree.
Visiting the place, you get the feeling that if you stand still a second too long, you, too, will be draped in light strands. Nearby Wrigley Field, which worked so hard to get its own lights, is green with envy.
Along with the brightness come ancillary activities, including chain saw ice sculptors, a Santa, and, oh, yeah, a chance to see animals at a different time of day.
Brookfield, judging by the pictures our photographer took that same night, also has gone up to the edge of berserk in decorating its grounds with bulbage, claiming "just over a million bulbs," says Ken Grzeslo, the zoo's on-site marketing manager, a number that also keeps on growing.
Brookfield features caroling to the animals, and it adds a laser light show that posits the notion that the animals are the ones doing all the decorating.
The advent of resource-friendly LED bulbs has helped fuel the growth and keep costs down. "Number one, the event's sponsored by Com Ed, so that helps," Grzeslo says. (Com Ed also sponsors ZooLights, along with Charter One.) About 84 percent of the bulbs are LED now.
Workers start setting up in July for what began, in 1982, as a modest display in the Children's Zoo and has grown into "the largest event we do," Grzeslo says.
Brookfield had 38,500 people over the weekend, a Holiday Magic record, said a spokeswoman. If you want to understand how important such events have become to the bottom line, that's almost eight times what is considered respectable off-season attendance. A busy weekend last February drew about 5,000.
"We used to think people came because of the animals," Grzeslo says. "Now that the event has grown so much and there's more lights, we think more people are coming because of the lights."
Or, in some cases, because they've found a way to make peace with the lights.
When: 5-9 p.m. on select days through Jan. 6
Where: Lincoln Park Zoo, 2200 N. Cannon Drive
Tickets: Free; 312-742-2000 or lpzoo.org
When: 4-9 p.m. on select days through Dec. 31
Where: Brookfield Zoo, 8400 31st St., Brookfield
Tickets: (Regular admission charges) $15 adults, $10.50 children; 708-688-8000 or czs.org
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