A Holiday Tradition Close to Home: Behind the Scenes at ZooLights

Plus, a Sneak-Peak into the Jingle Bell Jukebox Revue

“It is Christmas in the heart that puts Christmas in the air,” W. T. Ellis once famously said. We may not have snow, but Christmas is absolutely in the air in Jacksonville, Florida.  There’s no shortage of holiday activities to enjoy, but with 30,000 guests in 2017, ZooLights is the largest and perhaps most spectacular. With new areas to explore and a theme-park style musical production designed by Jacksonville theater-maker Lee Hamby, the 7th annual ZooLights event at the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens is sure to put you in the mood to celebrate.

Holiday Spirit, Florida Style

Guests are in for a whimsical winter wonderland featuring lighted forests of trees, moving sculptures, and colorful animal silhouettes.  “They’re going to be hit with lights immediately,” says Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens Special Events Manager Jennifer Paulk, “We’re going to have more lighting than ever at our main camp entrance. There’ll be twinkling, dancing lights set to music here and then throughout the zoo.”  Forty metal sculpture trees create a magical Christmas Tree Village near the Giraffe Overlook and Elephant Sculptures and lights continue through Trout River Plaza, the Asian Bamboo Garden, and the Great Lawn too. Hundreds of thousands of lights and decorations await discovery and create an atmosphere of unforgettable holiday ambiance. “I don’t think we’ve hit the million mark yet with lights, but I don’t think we’re too far off at this point,” Paulk says.

“Each section is unique and they all have aspects of the local art culture,” she adds, “There’s a lot of artisans in our region that we’ve used to pull this look together, so there’s a local touch, which is awesome.”

In addition to strolling twinkle-lit paths and enjoying holiday music, guests can travel on the lighted train, experience a 4-D showing of Rudolph, ride the carousel (12 and under), and roast marshmallows on the Great Lawn for a small fee.  On weekends, local artisans and vendors transform the Great Lawn into a Christmas Bizarre.

The evening’s focus is not the thousands of animals who call this facility home.  Many will be in their night houses, though the Lost Temple is a sure-fire location to spot some critters. “We’re focusing on the lights and programming that we have available,” Paulk says, “ZooLights is in an untraditional setting for Christmas, especially since most visitors are more familiar with our daytime activities. Coming to see a place with animals lit up for Christmas is altogether unique and different.”

“There’s not an age that it’s not good for,” Paulk says, “There’s a little bit for everyone and we want to completely amaze you from the turnstiles and really get you in the holiday mood. I think for the kids it’s meeting and greeting with Santa and just seeing the zoo all lit up at night. If you come during the daytime, it’s a completely different experience.  For the parents, it’s equal parts watching what’s going on with their children and also that feeling of nostalgia from when they were kids. For the elderly population, it’s just about falling in love with Christmas all over again.”

Paulk and her team are in charge of the programming and execution of the event and the amount of prep work and planning required to pull off this production is staggering. “The planning for ZooLights starts in about February,” Paulk says, “There’s a creative group that meets to get the ball rolling and consider things we’ve done in the past, what we want to carry on, and if we want to change the look of any of the areas a little bit.” The team begins production on aspects of the show as early as April. By July, they’re pre-wrapping trees in the zoo.

Opening night is the result of months of dedicated work, though the weeks immediately before commencement are by far the most intense. As soon as Spooktacular winds down, Zoo staff morph into full-blown Christmas mode. “Considering how large our organization is, we start pulling folks in a little closer to execution time,” Paulk says, “On a nightly basis, there are probably 50-60 zoo staff members that are here if not more. Volunteers contribute another 10-20 bodies on any given night.”  ZooLights is a ticketed event (online or at the gate) that runs from December 7-9 and December 14-January 5 (Sunday-Thursday 6pm-9:30pm, Friday-Saturday 6pm-10pm).

A Sneak-Peak into the Jingle Bell Jukebox Revue

When Jennifer Paulk came onboard as Special Events Manager, she dreamed of bringing a live production show to the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens and this December her dreams become a reality. She turned to Jacksonville native and Managing Director of The 5 & Dime- A Theater Company, Lee Hamby, for assistance.  The production needed to be as bright and colorful as possible, engaging for the entire family, and utilize local talent. Choreographer Niki Stokes joined the team as well, and ZooLight’s brand-new Christmas attraction—The Jingle Bell Jukebox Revue—was born.

“It’s kind of like Glee. It’s show choiry. It’s a fun mix of Christmas songs people know and maybe also Christmas songs they don’t know,” Lee Hamby says, “It’s an upbeat, family-friendly, bright, energetic theme-park style show and it’s just going to be a lot of fun.”

The nightly production will take place on the Great Lawn, features seven talented local singers/ dancers, and is included with admission. With the exception of a few nights (Christmas Eve being one of them), the Revue will perform at 7 and 8 PM on weeknights and at 7, 8, and 9 PM on the weekends. Guests can relax and enjoy the show, roast marshmallows, or browse the weekend Christmas Bizarre while they listen. “I don’t think there’s a song you could think of off the top of your head that’s not in there,” Paulk says, “There’s a really awesome, soulful trio mix, “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” and I think everyone’s going to be singing that song especially.”

Paulk has performed in a Hamby production in the past and is excited for the magic he’ll bring to ZooLights. Hamby is thrilled to be part of the zoo’s first live production. “The arrangement of the songs is really fun,” he says, “There’s some Elvis-style shows. There’s that cute Santa Baby song for the girls. There’s a really fun section called Soulful Christmas, which takes some Lady Marmalade and mixes it in with some Mariah Carey. That’s really fun too. I don’t want to give anything away, but I’m really excited about the costumes.”

Longtime ZooLights fans are in for an entirely fresh experience; first-time guests a night to remember. “I think it’s something different that the zoo hasn’t really done yet and I think if we can be successful and people really enjoy it, it might be something that the zoo can do year-round and do different themes,” Hamby says, “I really think people are going to eat it up because I don’t think it’s something they expect to see at the zoo. That’ll make it even more exciting.”

Twinkling lights, upbeat holiday tunes, and beautifully choreographed performances create an irresistible holiday atmosphere. “Come out and see the amazing artistry of our local community and enjoy a holiday tradition that’s unlike any other in this area,” Paulk encourages Northeast Floridians, “We have family programming just bursting at the seams as well as some opportunities to encounter animals. There’s only the best of local live entertainment and something you probably haven’t seen before.”

Christmas is in the air in Jacksonville, Florida, and one need not travel far to fill their heart with Christmas cheer. There’s plenty of local flair just waiting to become part of your holiday tradition right here at home.

About Jennifer Melville

Jennifer Melville is a contributing writer for EU Jacksonville, South Magazine, Folio Magazine, Green Prints, Focus on the Family, and various other print and online publications. She’s a military wife, mother of four, and a leader in the NE Florida homeschooling community. You can check out more of her work on her website, Azalea Publications or follow her on Twitter.