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WildLights is almost here

Posted by: Kirsten Pisto, Communications

WildLights presented by KeyBank—the zoo's first winter lights festival—premieres next week, but we've been daydreaming about sugarplums and snowflakes for months in preparation for the big debut. You can say we’ve been hit with the WildLights bug—Twinkleitus—ever since we saw the preliminary sketches of our zoo lit up with 375,000 sparkling LED lights!

A sneak peek at some of the sparkle.

It takes a lot of hard work to build such an elaborate lights display, so John Evans, the zoo's guy in charge of this entire operation, assembled a group of LED artisans who blew our socks off with their ingenuity and resourcefulness. A lot of these folks have backgrounds in theater design, carpentry and sculpture, but one of them is even a stuntman from Hollywood.

The pop up workshop was full of grinding, drilling, sawing, and lots of ear plugs.

The crew worked all summer building flapping flamingos, flying frogs and even a graceful elephant herd. Stationed in a big white tent behind our penguin exhibit, the team had to work fast to create all of the pieces you’ll see this winter at WildLights.

A giraffe silhouette checks in on the WildLights workshop.

Sparks fly as Matt works the metal saw.

“The cool thing,” says crew member Anthony Balducci, “is most of the material we used to make the WildLights workshop is recycled from older zoo projects. The woodshop tables, the lumber, and even the welding cart were leftover from the Zoomazium sandbox.” The reindeer barn, which will house two reindeer during the festivities, was also pre-built to shelter the crew from the summer sun.

One of the walls for the reindeer barn acts as a staging unit for these flamingo and penguin light displays.

The WildLights crew had a to-do list about as long as Santa’s: finish net light, install door lights, place vulture on fence, move rhino, decorate sycamore, replace cheetah, multi lights on silhouettes, lights on tigers, lights on ceiba tree! Whew! (And that was only on one day!)

So, how do you build two 20 ft. tall tigers, a colony of penguins and a flock of flamingos out of lights? First, the crew had to interpret the concept sketches into real three dimensional drawings. Todd Nordling, the designer, provided the team with awesome drawings, but transforming the ideas into reality took a lot of vision.

Rebar penguin silhouette.

Jason carefully places the rebar along a print out of a penguin. Manipulating steel  into this detailed design takes a lot of skill and patience.

Then came the rebar structure. Rebar is malleable enough to create some pretty intricate shapes, while remaining strong. Our crew uses weldable rebar, which can be fused together with a welding torch.

Rebar is short for reinforced steel, the same material used in construction to support concrete infrastructure.

Anthony bends the metal into shape.

The rebar is cut and fit together with clamps before being hit with the torch. The arc welder tool is then used to fuse together the rebar. Arc welders use an electric current to strike an arc between the base material and a consumable electrode rod.

Ray fuses the steel shapes together.

Now that the basic shape was constructed, they took the entire thing down to Scott Galvanizing to be dipped. Galvanizing is a process that protects the steal and seals the piece in a shiny silver coat.

One of the huge tiger heads waits for its other parts after being brought back from the silver dip.

This tiger’s paw is huge. The final product is going to be so awesome!

Amanda uses a wire brush to do last minute detail work on the steel displays before they are delivered to the light tent. 

Anthony explains the mechanics of tiger wrangling.

The next step? LIGHTS!!!

Inside the light tent, staff and volunteers from across the zoo took turns wrapping the displays with light strands. Most of the displays got a couple of strands, but about 30 strands of LED lights were wrapped around each tiger! That’s a lot of lights, but when you want a 20 foot tiger to sparkle, well, you need a lot of sparkle.

Tara skillfully wraps LED lights onto the steel frame.

Fortunately, the actual wattage the zoo will end up using is pretty minimal. With the new LED technology, this lights festival will only use about 112 W per night, which is nothing compared to the incandescent lights of yesteryear. How much power do we actually save using LED lights? Well, a 70 count strand of LED mini lights requires 4.8 watts, while a 50 count strand of standard mini lights requires 20.4 watts! That’s about 24% difference in just one strand of lights, and we have a lot strands! Plus, incandescent string lights last around 2,500 hours, while LED string lights should last up to 100,000 hours. Quick, somebody call Clark Griswold!

Across the zoo, we have main breakers, breaker sub panels, fused disconnects, wire twist locks, phase pins, Hubble twist locks, cam locks, 3 prong and 375,000 lights… in other words, a giant electrical puzzle. Good thing our electricians know the difference between a Nema L14-20R and a Leviton 460R9W, ‘cause I sure don’t!

Ernie braves the cherry picker and goes sky high for lights on the Zoomazium roof. Zoomazium is being transformed into Snowmazium for the event. 

Placing the displays on zoo grounds is the next step. It takes the entire team to manage arranging and orienting these massive displays.

The crew measures the height for one of the tree displays.

Ray and Joe install displays.

All hands on deck! This WildLights project has been a true collaboration, from horticulture (tying 400 feet of ribbon onto pine boughs) to the events team (coordinating, planning and light stringing!), animal management (ensuring our animals won’t be disturbed), Lancer food services (creating drool worthy hot chocolate!), education (keeping those real snowmen from melting), grounds (accommodating all of this fine-tuning with a smile) and every staff and volunteer in between who has made this WildLights experience sparkle.

WildLights manager, John Evans, laughs with grounds maintenance lead,  Larry McCoy.  Both teams have been up to their elbows in lights for the past three weeks. 

Mark is now officially an expert in icicle lights!

Brad and Andy smile from treetop duty. 

We are really grateful to the WildLights crew who have, since April, been dedicated to bringing a warm and twinkling new holiday tradition to our Woodland Park Zoo family and visitors. We can’t wait to share these awesome light displays with you!

Jingle, jingle! Photo by Ryan Hawk/Woodland Park Zoo.

To purchase WildLights tickets and learn more about the event, please visit:

(All photos by Kirsten Pisto/Woodland Park Zoo unless otherwise noted.)


Anonymous said…
The light displays are spectacular!!! Thank you for all your wonderful work :)
Unknown said…
We are psyched!!! Can't wait!