I Make the Phoenix ZooLights Display Every Year

  • I’ve wanted to work at the zoo since I was a kid – I even wrote a report about it when I was in fourth grade.
  • The light exhibit is an important event for the nonprofit zoo because it is our largest fundraising event.
  • People ask why we remove everything if we’re going to put everything back right away, but we want to deliver a unique experience every year.

This is an article as described, based on a conversation with Phoenix Zoo’s ZooLights manager, Justin Davis. Edited for length and clarity.

I have been working full time for ten years on ZooLights, a light show with animal sculptures and creative light shows at the Phoenix Zoo, and now I am the event manager. But I’ve wanted to work at the zoo since I was a kid – I even wrote a report about it when I was in fourth grade.

It was so well known in my family that 18 years ago, when my father was offered a job at the zoo, he asked me if I was a good fit. When I was 16, I tried to find a job there but failed.

Eventually, a position opened up on the ZooLights team and he thought I would be a good fit, so I applied and got the job. Two years later my predecessor left and I was promoted to manager. Now, I’m in my eighth season in the role.

It’s not just a holiday concert

Nothing could really prepare me for this career – you have to be an expert in all kinds of business, and even if it’s a holiday event, it’s a year-round job. At the end of January, my team of five and I are starting to tear everything apart. I aim to finish this by Tax Day, but it’s usually not done until early May.

A burning Christmas tree at ZooLights at Phoenix Zoo

It’s important to keep adding new things, as ZooLights is an old tradition.

Phoenix Zoo

Then we start the repair work. This lasts from the beginning of May to the beginning of June. We are starting to re-install lights and fixtures from June 1st. This lasts until Halloween, then Halloween through Thanksgiving, we mark our Is points and cut our T’s and we’re done about 95% of the way.

A lot of people ask why we remove everything if we’re going to put everything back right away, and a big part of that is we want to offer a unique experience and change something every year.

New decoration ideas motivate us

When we come up with new ideas and new images, it’s a group effort. This year we have a new 50m floating tree that requires a lot of work as it is a very high budget process.

There are several standards – trees that we decorate in the same way every year. For example, the Skittles tree is multi-wrapped in many different colors. But instead of having a specific plan for each tree or area, we started creating different scenes that were interchangeable. For example, we have a forest scene and a farm scene, which are not always in the same place.

I need to understand how each tree is decorated so we don’t repeat things too often.

I leave some elements of the decor to my team and their interpretation of our vision. A man is a big fan of comics, so he likes to decorate a particular tree like the Joker with white, purple and green lights. Besides that purple – because we don’t have black – and a yellow Batman tree will do. Another team member covers one tree in his wife’s two favorite colors and another in his daughter’s favorite colors – we even name those trees after them.

Crews put Christmas lights on trees at Phoenix Zoo

By June 1, the ZooLights team is starting to install all the lights and fixtures.

Phoenix Zoo

Baboon model lit up at ZooLights in Phoenix

ZooLights in Phoenix has been around for over 30 years.

Phoenix Zoo

This also helps motivate the team – especially when we go decorating in the middle of summer. It’s not easy to wrap trees in June and people are shocked to learn how small our team is.

Sometimes I throw the name tag

But it’s all worth it when we see how much families love the lights. One of my favorite things is to go out and remove my name tag (so people don’t know I work at the zoo and see the kids enjoying ZooLights and wanting to take pictures on their favorite screens) – an old, grumpy teenager but got to see his fascination with lights growing up.

Lions lit up as part of ZooLights event at Phoenix Zoo

ZooLights at the Phoenix Zoo is a major event as it is the largest fundraising event.

Phoenix Zoo

Another favorite part of the job is building new and creative fixtures. This event has been going on for 30 years, so it’s important to keep adding new things.

It’s also an important event for the zoo because this is our biggest fundraising event. As we are a nonprofit, all of our money comes from donors and ticket sales for events like this. It allows us to keep the zoo growing, create better displays for our animals and make sure they are taken care of.

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