by Mallory Moad
It’s time for the holidays in the Central Valley, and lights are a big, big deal. You can’t drive down a street after dark without multi-colored bulbs guiding your way. They’re wild and crazy and they’re everywhere, on homes, businesses and in at least 4 night-time parades. But in Fresno you’ll find one collection of illuminated displays in a place that’s a little out of the ordinary.
Every December for the past eight years, the Fresno Chaffee Zoo has transformed into an after-hours extravaganza of holiday lights known as ZooLights. On a chilly Sunday evening, I experienced this popular local attraction for myself for the first time. With giant, glittering snowflakes on the roof, outrageously colorful trees and joyful music, the entrance to the zoo set the stage for the brilliant spectacle waiting inside.
I visit the Fresno Chaffee Zoo at least once a year, and I have never seen it looking like this! Trees, buildings, fences and doorways are wrapped and hung with miles and miles of glittering LEDs. Nothing is left dark or empty. Even vacant exhibit spaces have been put to creative use with animated light displays complete with synchronized music. Most of the animals aren’t visible (It’s dark, after all), but there are a number of gleaming tributes to them. Surrounding the African Adventure are life-size, colorful giraffes and a glowing lion, a whimsical neon-green chameleon relaxes in a tree near the Reptile House, and a bright orange tiger looks as though it has just stepped from the enclosure where the real, live tigers reside. There’s a walk-through Star Wars display for the nerds amongst us, and a larger-than-life American flag in dazzling red, white and blue if you’re in a patriotic mood.
Unlike many local holiday-themed displays, you are not confined to a vehicle or required to proceed in a pre-determined direction or speed at ZooLights. It is not only appropriate for all ages but accessible to all abilities as well. The casual, yet festive atmosphere lets visitors comfortably stroll at their own pace while enjoying the sights and sounds. And if you feel like running and jumping, that’s OK, too.
ZooLights is a major production that changes every year and requires hours of organizing. Ciara Castellanoz, Marketing Director for the Fresno Chaffee Zoo, says planning for ZooLights is always taking place. “From the first night of this year’s event, our Events Team will be looking at ways to make it even better next year.” Assembling decorations and setting up displays begins in October and even continues after ZooLights has opened. “There’s always a surprise. I see something new every night!”
ZooLights is popular with families and for some, it has become a tradition. Lori Workman was accompanied by her large, energetic family, which spanned four generations, aged 8 months to 82 years. They have been attending ZooLights for the past seven years. “ZooLights is a unique thing for us to do as a family,” Lori says. “And we love to support the community and our zoo.” Meanwhile, warming up near the fireplace at the Kopje Lodge, the Stadtherr brothers, Noah (age 7) and Wesley (age 5) were anxiously waiting for the chance to meet PBS superstar, Daniel Tiger. This was the boys’ second year visiting ZooLights, and they always enjoy seeing “ALL the lights!” and being photographed with the most awesome Santa ever.
Admission to Zoolights is reasonable and affordable and comes with a few nice perks. Taking photos with Chaffee Zoo mascot Taman, Santa, and special guests like Daniel Tiger are free of charge, and everyone who attends ZooLights gets a free cup of hot chocolate and a cookie (both of which are excellent), served with a smile at the zoo’s snack bar.
In addition to ZooLights, the Fresno Chaffee Zoo has a special holiday celebration just for the animals. Santa Paws is an enrichment program designed to stimulate natural behaviors like foraging and play. On Monday, December 26, zoo staff will deliver specially wrapped gifts of food to elephants, orangutans, lemurs, and other zoo residents in their care throughout the day. Visitors can watch as they enthusiastically dig in for tasty treats in this post-Christmas party.
Now that I’ve seen ZooLights, I understand why up to 50,000 people from all over the Central Valley will be making it one of their holiday destinations. It’s just so fabulously cool. So meet me by the hot pink flamingos, across from the purple tree. We can share a cup of cocoa, and you can tell me all about that Daniel Tiger.
My name is Mallory Moad. I love finding exciting things to do, close to home, all year round.
ZooLights runs 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. on the following dates: December 16-23 and December 26-30.
Fresno Chaffee Zoo Members:
Child $5 (ages 2-11)
Child $7 (ages 2-11)
(Children 1 year and under are Free)
Fresno Chaffee Zoo
894 West Belmont Avenue
Fresno, CA 93728