Go behind the scenes at Zoo's Festival of Lights

Posted at 8:40 AM, Nov 20, 2015
and last updated 2015-11-20 08:40:45-05

The Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden will once again assume the appearance of a “Wild Wonderland” during their 33rd annual Festival of Lights sponsored by PNC.

In addition to blanketing the venue with more than 2 million LED lights, visitors can watch the Madcap Puppets blacklight puppet show, ride Toyland Express, visit with Santa and toast their own s’mores. New features this year include a Frozen Village featuring the Royal Sisters and an all new choreographed light show on Swan Lake featuring a 25-foot tree and floating spheres. The event opens Nov. 21 and runs through Jan. 2.

Santa Claus arrives at last year's Festival of Lights. Photo provided by Cincinnati Zoo

So what does it take to prepare for an event of this magnitude? The zoo’s team let me tag along to get a firsthand look.

15 days until opening

I’m running 5 minutes late when the zoo’s maintenance crew zooms by in a cart brimming with equipment. They tell me there's been a change of plans, to instead meet them at the zoo entrance. By the time I double back, I find them already engrossed in checking one of last year’s most popular additions: a towering Christmas tree complete with programmable LEDs that illuminate cool designs including Superman and a running cheetah. It’s obvious the group takes great pride in their work, especially since they built this particular feature at their on-site facility as well as numerous others throughout the park.


“We’ve got one of the best fabrication departments you’ll find in Cincinnati,” says fabricator Terry Jackson. “As far as I’m concerned, we can build anything they put in front of us. We take a lot of pride in what we do.”

The maintenance team at the zoo created the "Frozen" sign on-site for this year's event. Photo by Christine Charlson

Even though their workload may seem daunting, the group obviously enjoys the challenge as they proudly pose to display their “lighting specialist” T-shirts. This time of year the maintenance team works double duty taking care of everyday issues along with prepping for the event. While most people drag out holiday decorations the day after Thanksgiving, the lighting team begins hanging an estimated 2 million (and counting) lights at summer’s end.

“We started Aug. 1 and it opens Nov. 20, so we’ll be working right up to that day,” Jackson says.

Added together, the maintenance crew including Jackson, John Fugate, Patrick Corman and Tim Wynn boast more than 80 years of fabrication and electrical experience. This year, the group created a number of new features including a variety of luminary animal faces, a "Frozen” sign for the themed character event and five 6-foot-round spheres covered with programmable LEDs that will dance with light during the lake show.

"Lighting specialists" Patrick Corman, left, Tim Wynn, John Fugate and Terry Jackson. Photo by Christine Charlson

“Our maintenance guys are amazing at what they can do,” adds the zoo's vice president of marketing, Chad Yelton. “Their answer is usually, 'Yes we can do it,' and they’re probably not sure at the time that they know how to do it. But their answer is always, 'We can figure it out' – and they do.”

9 days until opening

I arrive at dusk to tag along on the second of five final festival walkthroughs. A cheery group from both the marketing and maintenance departments assemble and begin donning hats and gloves to prepare for the dropping temperatures. Special events manager Susan Ludwig explains that during the walkthroughs, they look at overall appearance, where lights might be missing or malfunctioning and where they may need to add more. Along the way, she says they take notes then send the list over to maintenance so they can address it the next day.

“It’s just a general look, just to see how it’s coming along,” she says. “For example, John (Fugate) told us they haven’t had a chance to start Children’s Zoo yet. So it won’t be a surprise when we get to Children’s Zoo and there are no lights. So even though they know they need to do it, we add it to the list.”

As we walk by the passenger pigeon memorial, maintenance supervisor Damon Mounce notices a section of inoperative lights. Fugate, aka Ricky Bobby (a nickname he apparently earned by stranding the zoo tram by turning left instead of right), heads off to investigate. Mounce explains most lights should illuminate automatically either by timer or switch from the central control room, but occasionally grounds workers unplug them during the day.

“The last two weeks is when I stress,” Mounce says. “Something you think is done and it’s marked off the list, but it’s not done. And you think, 'That was plugged in and working the last walkthrough and here we are and it’s not working again.' ”

Lights illuminate part of the Cincinnati Zoo during the Festival of Lights. Photo provided by Cincinnati Zoo

Because the event is so steeped in tradition, Yelton says both the maintenance and marketing departments hold themselves to a higher standard. He explains each year they try to exceed visitor’s expectations, so after the lights come down in February they begin working on next year’s event in March.

“We get so many people who tell us it’s become a family tradition,” he says. “We probably have 20 or more people who get engaged here during the festival.”

Mounce explains he’s especially driven by a letter the zoo received the first year he took over the event. He says it was a letter of thanks from the parents of a legally blind girl who attended the festival with her family.

“It said this was the first year she could come in here and actually see all the lights, how bright they were -- so that pushes me to go, 'We can do that better and brighter,' ” he says.

Nighttime settles in and lights pop. We come across a rare patch of darkness and the team immediately reacts, making notes to add lights the next day. I joke about the goal being to cover every inch of ground and foliage with lights.

“Pretty much,” Mounce replies with a laugh.

Maintenance supervisor Damon Mounce inspects an area of inoperative lights during the walkthrough. Photo by Christine Charlson

Just before we pass through glorious pinks and purples in Fairy Land, we hear some unusual chords of music coming from Swan Lake. Yelton asks if I recognize it. It’s familiar, but definitely not holiday music. He tells me their team decided to change things up this year by going with a nontraditional theme for the lake show.

“The rest of the music around the park has a very holiday feel, but we describe this as not your typical holiday show because we’re doing it all to movie soundtracks,” he says. “We’re excited because when you do a synchronized light show, you can’t just have mellow music because it wouldn’t be as exciting.”

While the 25-foot tree and spheres atop the lake dance with color, the lights surrounding the lake remain idle. As a result, part of the group breaks off to resolve the issue. Mounce, Ludwig and I forge ahead toward Africa where we’re greeted by a gorgeous sea of teal. Ludwig comments on the breathtaking effect.

“I’ll just have to take your word for it,” Mounce says. “I don’t see colors very well, I’m color blind.”

At first I think he’s joking, but then I realize ironically the man who works so tirelessly to create this amazing spectacle is unable to appreciate its full splendor.

“I look out here and all I see is white – if you tell me it’s pink or purple, I see blue,” he says. “Thank goodness they write down the exact colors they want and everything is in marked bins. We’ve gotten to the point things are really well organized.”

We reunite with the rest of the group just before we head down Bear Hill. As we turn the corner, we’re suddenly reminded we are indeed in a zoo as Berit the polar bear is at the edge of her enclosure staring directly at us – perhaps she too loves taking in the spectacle of lights. I pull myself away to find the team scrutinizing a section of new lighting: lasers that give the appearance of hundreds of sparkles scattered through the foliage. The green looks amazing, but the group decides the blue needs a boost.

“We need to order five or six more of these,” Mounce says.

Team members Damon Mounce, left, John Fugate and Susan Ludwig discuss changes to a display. Photo by Christine Charlson

So that’s 2 million-plus lights and counting.

We’re nearing the end of the walkthrough when we come upon the rainbow bridge. With last year’s harsh winter, Mounce tells me a portion of the PVC construction began to sag beneath the weight of ice and snow. He says they’ve corrected the problem this year by re-engineering the entire structure from metal.

Each light is tied on individually to the rainbow tunnel, which takes four days to complete. Photo by Christine Charlson

“Each one of those lights has to be individually tied on,” he says. “You know, it takes four days alone just to put all the lights on the bridge.”

As our walkthrough comes to a close, the group is still buzzing as they head to the maintenance building to review their notes. Tomorrow the "lighting specialists" will be out early to address issues and continue setup. Mounce explains they still have a lot to do before preview night Nov. 20.

“We’ll be working right up to the time it opens,” he says. “And even when it’s open we’re always tweaking things right through the whole festival.”