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Denver Zoo Lights continues a three-decade tradition

Denver Zoo Lights began three decades ago and now features 3 million LED lights.
Ben Armendariz
Rocky Mountain Community Radio
Denver Zoo Lights began three decades ago and now features 3 million LED lights.

For the past 32 years, the Denver Zoo has played host to a luminous tradition that has become an essential holiday to-do for Colorado friends and families.

With a plethora of lighted figures and special attractions like ice sculpting, a train ride through the zoo, and of course, animals you may have never seen, all with food and beverages along the way for kids and adults, the Denver Zoo Lights is a holiday experience for all.

Jake Kubié, Director of Communications at Denver Zoo, says the event was started more than three decades ago by a group of volunteers who saw a similar holiday light event at a zoo in Ohio.

“So it really had humble and kind of surprising origins. It started with 25,000 lights or so, so it's just kind of a few trees lit up here and there. A few, kind of, cool displays. And I think the first year they only had about 27,000 people,” he said.

“And at the time it was called Wild Lights. So from 1991 to now, it's incredible to see how popular it's become, and especially for families who grew up here and have been here, it's become this multi-generational event that people come to every single year.”

There's also one special night of the year in particular that's tailored specifically to those with sensory processing disorders: Zoo Lights’ Low Sensory Night that takes place on New Year's Eve.

“So this is an event that's specifically designed for people, families with autism, and other sensory processing disorders. So it's the Zoo Lights experience, but we take away some of the effects that can trigger individuals who have some of those disorders, you know, loud noises, flashing lights,” said Kubié.

“We hand out sensory kits and things, so it's a really cool opportunity for a lot of families who maybe don't always get to, you know, take their kids out, or family members out for some of the great holiday events.”

If you’re wondering how many lights there are now in the current Denver Zoo Lights display, the answer is around 3 million, says Kubié.

“So we have all LED lights, which is really cool, so we've actually saved a huge amount of energy electricity over the years by switching to all LEDs. So every year becomes more sustainable,” he said.

Strolling through the zoo you get a sense of the different light displays, including a Colorado-themed area that has the state flag in lights, and displays that feature animals who are residents of the zoo.

Of course, December nights can get a little chilly, but luckily there are places along the way to warm up with fire barrels and food stations throughout the zoo.

Denver Zoo lights runs through January 7, 2024.

This story was shared via Rocky Mountain Community Radio, a network of public media stations in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico including Aspen Public Radio.

Ben Armendariz is studying journalism at CU Boulder.