Zoo’s biggest fund raiser is also its biggest ‘fun’ raiser


Once upon a time there was a sleeping dragon…

Sounds like the beginning of a fairy tale, but the time was just last weekend, and the place was no farther from the Kyrene Corridor than the Phoenix Zoo.

I was there, in the company of my wife and nine-year-old, to tour Zoolights, the annual after-dark holiday-light extravaganza. Sponsored by SRP, this year’s Zoolights—the 20th anniversary edition—features 3½ million sparkly lights in every imaginable color, configured like animals from all over the globe.

The show, which takes about three months to install, is the zoo’s biggest fundraising event.

Accordingly, Zoolights isn’t exactly what you’d call cheap, especially if you want to bring a large brood—it’s $10 Sundays through Thursdays ($9 for members), $13 Fridays and Saturdays (kids 2 and younger are free), and once you’re inside, you’ll be hustled for everything from photos to hot chocolate to cotton candy, priced north of six bucks.

Just keep telling yourself, it’s for the animals. Although we saw real camels, zebras and flamingos staying up late, most of the live critters in the zoo’s collection are snoozing during Zoolights hours.

The glowing, glittering lightbulb menagerie, however, is wide awake. A grasshopper waves at you as you enter, gibbons swing from the trees just inside the gates, a baby elephant playfully aims its trunk at a grownup and squirts it in the eye, and a red-eyed mantis stands guard.

On the Arizona Trail, you’ll see Zoolights’ versions of area fauna ranging from roadrunners to javelina to a centipede and a scorpion big enough to have escaped from a science-fiction movie. Jengo, the life-sized talking robot giraffe, also pulls the evening shift, chatting away with the kids.

There are also non-representational lights that robe the trees and vegetation in vivid colors, and in some cases flicker and dance in sync with a fine mix of holiday music. It feels very festive to stroll the grounds after sundown, inArizona’s hard-won winter cool.

Oh yeah, the sleeping dragon—Ivan, one of the zoo’s komodo inhabitants was sleeping in his enclosure, under reddish after-hours light. He’s a big, scary, powerful, dangerous, predatory reptile, but somehow, with his eyes shut tight and chin tucked snugly against his neck, he looked irresistibly innocent and sweet. It’s the sort of sight you’re not likely to see during regular zoo hours, and for my wife, it was the highlight of our visit.

Zoolights continues from 6 to 10 p.m through Sunday, Jan. 8. Go to phoenixzoo.org for details.



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