The Audubon Zoo was deserted on a recent wintry afternoon, as temperatures hovered in the mid-40s. Yet something special was happening.

Workers wearing thick rain jackets assembled holiday displays, strung Christmas lights and attached snowflake-shaped ornaments to the branches of live oaks; they zipped down shady pathways in golf carts.

Leanne Mistretta, director of business development for Event Producers, greeted them, then led the way on a behind-the-scenes sneak peek of Zoo Lights — a dazzling, safari-inspired holiday production, featuring larger-than-life silk depictions of many of the zoo’s most popular animals, interactive light displays and games, live music, hot meals and wintertime beverages.

Presented by Children’s Hospital, Audubon Zoo Lights will shine on select nights throughout November and December.

Through the main entrance of the zoo and around Elephant Fountain, Mistretta pointed out pierced aluminum ornaments, ranging from four to eight feet, dangling “rainfall icicle” decorations and other festive flourishes.

An enormous glowing peacock with bright green feathers, embellished with bits of blue and yellow, was impossible to miss.

“That’s a showstopper,” Mistretta declared.


How it began

Preparation for Zoo Lights launched last February, when the Audubon Nature Institute joined forces with Event Producers — a local agency that specializes in event conceptualization, planning, production and on-site support.

Wires were formed into shapes of animals, wrapped first with LED bulbs, then silk. Artists airbrushed the fabric with a base color and hand-painted the details.

Employees from Event Producers, including lighting experts and builders, began installing the pieces one by one in early October, while making sure they were “rustproof and waterproof and weatherproof.”

The light exhibits featuring zoo animals are divided into “wildlife wonderlands,” Mistretta said. One section spotlights the animals of Africa — lions, a cheetah, antelopes and a rhinoceros that appears to be grazing in the grass. A white alligator rests in the Louisiana wonderland.

Throughout the Peacock Promenade, large LED hoops and light boxes covered with a peacock pattern sit perched in trees. And in the HUMBUGapalooza area, fluorescent ants ascending an ivy wall will glow beneath a black light once the sun sets.

Inside the Polar Pics station, guests will encounter gigantic Arctic bears, penguins and swooping owls. While there, they can take pictures with Santa Claus and his reindeer, and waltz through a winter wonderland, complete with holiday music and fluffy, flocked Christmas trees.

The sprawling Zoo Lights spectacle also captures the more familiar magic of the holiday season.

Near the Peppermint Path, white columns are wrapped in red ribbons to resemble candy canes, and lollipops line a pathway that meanders past oversized ice pops, strips of Roman candy, glittery cupcakes and a row of New Orleans-style gingerbread houses.

Zoo Lights also features fun interactive displays, like the Gum Drop Hop, where guests can pounce on lights and watch the colors change; and a large Lite-Brite game, complete with movable pegs.

Youngsters can even write and send holiday letters to the North Pole in a giant mailbox.

A new holiday tradition

Zoo Lights also features nightly live entertainment, story time and craft tents where guests can compose and send friendly messages to the patients in Children’s Hospital.

Petite Rouge Coffee Truck will serve specialty coffee; the Abita Beer Garden will offer seasonal craft brews, along with outdoor seating next to the Mistletoe Market — a holiday bazaar filled with treasures from local artisans.

“It’s going to be totally magical,” said Brenda Walkenhorst, the director of Education Projects for Audubon Nature Institute. “It’s pretty exciting because the minute you come in the gate, you're going to have this holiday experience.”

With Audubon’s Lights for Lions initiative, even those who don’t enter the zoo can recycle broken or unwanted holiday string lights by placing them in the drop box in front of the zoo. The proceeds support lion conservation efforts in Africa.

Zoo Lights is unique and unlike other holiday light shows in the city, Walkenhorst said.

“We're not competing with anybody, because we're offering something a little bit different,” said Walkenhorst. “So families, like my own family, are always looking to start new traditions. And I think this is just another one to make for a great holiday season.”


Audubon Zoo Lights presented by Children’s Hospital

When: 5:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Nov. 23-Dec. 30 (selected nights only)

Where: Audubon Zoo

Admission: $10 for Audubon members; $15 general admission. Under 2 free.