Zoolights covers 125 acres of land across Phoenix Zoo.

The Phoenix Zoo has many different creatures, but elves are not one of them – unless it’s time for the cherished holiday display known as Zoolights! A six-person crew is working diligently to bring the magic of a few million twinkle lights to visitors, with an opening date of November 23. 

To the untrained eye, trying to find millions of lights across the zoo during the day could be a challenging scavenger hunt. But to Zoolights manager Justin Davis, it’s a breeze.

“We try to have everything done by Halloween. Usually, we’ll have an ‘i’ to dot and ‘t’ to cross at that point, but we know it needs to be done. Most people don’t realize the planning and execution it takes,” Davis said.  

Zoolights first debuted in 1991. Back then, the lights were only on the Arizona Trail (a .75-mile trail designed to imitate the wildlife and plant life of the state of Arizona). The display was much smaller, of course, and only open for 11 to 15 days. By 1999, the zoo had introduced the Lake Show. 

“That show was the start of trees and elements being connected to music along the lake. Each year the zoo shines brighter and bigger with enhanced elements,” Vice President of Marketing Linda Hardwick said.

The two-month long event has expanded to include the entire park (except for the Children’s Zoo and the Predator Passway, which is coming soon!). According to Davis, it started with a couple thousand lights, and now there are around three million. The famous tree, Big Blue, holds about 35,000 lights alone! 

The crew starts planning for upcoming displays for the next year at the end of Zoolights, and construction begins on June 1. 

LED lights have made the process of decorating 125 acres of land a lot easier. Davis and his team set the lights on timers, automatically turning on and off. 

“This also prevents questions such as ‘did somebody turn on the flamingos?’” Davis said with a laugh. 

This year, he and his crew have planned an all-new Lake Show with a line of trees, the main one being 50 feet tall, wrapped with pixelated lights to display different moving images. 

“I like to say we get a bunch of brand-new people. We do, but Zoolights is like a family tradition. Some families have been coming to this event for 30 years,” Davis said. 

In 2021, the park included a Sensory Night. Fewer tickets are sold for this night to ensure smaller crowds, lasers that move along the ground are unplugged, the music is quieter, and all moving displays are slowed down. This year, the park will offer two Sensory Nights. 

Zoolights was started as – and continues to be – a fundraiser that helps raise money for the zoo to add new exhibits and Species Survival Plans (SSP). SSPs help save animals from extinction and inform the public about how they can help in the future. 

“The best way to help is to come out and enjoy the zoo. Donating is always helpful, but at the same time, just coming and supporting us is a win-win,” Davis said. “The biggest thing is knowing that not only are folks seeing the lights, but they’re also supporting the zoo and the wildlife.”


Time: 5:30-10:30 p.m.

Date: November 23-January 15, 2023.