Even in the rain and cold, visitors flock to Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium this time of year. There’s something about half a million lights that can brighten spirits even on the dreariest of nights.
Today, as Zoolights opens once again, it’s likely that some of the adults pushing strollers or shepherding young children were among those who visited the event in its 1987 inaugural season. A quarter century later, Zoolights has become an enduring Sound Sound tradition for many families during the holiday season – and an important revenue source for the zoo.
Favorite attractions from the past are back: the spectacular “flame tree” near the entrance, displays featuring Mount Rainier and the Narrows bridges, scuba-diving Santa feeding the sharks on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and a 100-foot-wide octopus lurking atop the North Pacific Aquarium.
New this year for an additional cost: zip line/challenge courses – one geared to children 5 and up and another for those 8 and older.
Zoolights began as an ingenious way to boost attendance during the traditionally slack time from Thanksgiving to New Year’s. What began as a relatively modest display of 30 figurines and five miles of lights that drew 21,000 visitors has evolved – a lot.
Today the exhibits use more than 27 miles worth of lights, and last year saw record attendance of 135,907 due to unusually clement weather.
Another welcome change has been Zoolights’ green trend. The zoo’s operations department started switching over to more energy-efficient and brighter light-emitting diode lights in 2003. Today, LEDs make up about 90 percent of the lights, which helps keep electricity costs low.
The success of Zoolights likely inspired Pierce County to mount its own version 18 years ago: Fantasy Lights at Spanaway Park, a drive-through light display which is also now open for visitors through Jan. 1.
The South Sound is fortunate to have both of these attractions, which help make the darkest days of the year a little brighter.