Polar bears, penguins, prairie dogs and flamingos will all be dressed in their holiday finest and lighting up the night to greet visitors at the annual U.S. Banks Wild Lights holiday light show at the St. Louis Zoo.
"It’s really beautiful," said Michael Macek, curator of birds at the zoo. "It’s grown every year that I’ve been here, and I’ve been here 20 years. Every single year they add more. It’s actually quite nice, because it’s so cold and dark, it’s nice to see the zoo lit up."
Wild Lights is open 5:30-8:30 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Sunday through Dec. 11. Starting Dec. 16, it will be open daily through Dec. 23, then again Dec. 26-30. Admission is $4 for zoo members, $5 for non-members.
In what the zoo is calling "watts of wild holiday fun," the grounds will be lit with 500,000 lights in a myriad of colors, taking the shape of many of the animals commonly found here. In addition to swinging monkey lights and posing penguins, fish and frogs jump, flamingos decorate grassy openings and giant, multi-colored butterflies flutter outside the entrance to the Monsanto Insectarium.
"There are a number of displays that feature the animals," Macek said.
The giant penguin displays, illuminated from the inside, are quite striking outside Penguin and Puffin Coast.
"We used to have just a handful, and now we have a few more," Macek said. "They’re really nice. A lot larger than a standard penguin, but pretty accurate other than that, and they’re really very pretty."
The prairie dog lights should also be a hit.
"They’re really cool," he said. "There’s a sequence of lights that makes it look like the prairie dogs are popping up and out of their prairie towns."
Holiday music will accompany several of the displays. There will also be a snowfall flurry walk, a gingerbread village and lights in many of the trees throughout the grounds. In addition, Ol’ Saint Nick and a snowman will be on hand. If it gets too cold, visitors can stop by a crackling fire and hear Tundra Tom and Arctic Annie, who will regale listeners with fascinating animal tales. Tom will talk about penguins, reindeer and other worldly wildlife while Annie will discuss Missouri’s local critters.
"Tundra Tom and Arctic Annie are both regular interpreters that we have at the zoo, who work throughout the year," Macek said. "I know they’re wonderful storytellers. They’re very engaging, and they’re in character, so they play it like an acting part."
Two animal displays will be open during Wild Lights—Penguin and Puffin Coast and the Insectarium.
"They can see insects, and they can see penguins and puffins for sure," Macek said. "As they’re walking through the zoo grounds, we have three large lakes in the middle of the zoo, around which many of the light displays are focused. And we do have waterfowl out on the lakes, so there are ducks and geese and pelicans and swans and things like that."
As an added bonus, the indoor displays will give people a chance to get out of the weather. The Penguin and Puffin Coast, kept cool for its inhabitants, is like a cave in that it is cooler than the outside temperature in summer, and warmer than outside in winter. The insectarium is even better, as it will be room temperature.
"It’s a really nice place to warm up," Macek said. "Particularly the butterfly dome."
Interestingly, the Humboldt penguins that live outside Penguin and Puffin Coast don’t welcome winter’s worst.
"Most people think of penguins as being cold weather species, but in fact the Humboldt penguin is really a temperate weather species found in Chile and Peru," Macek said. "We don’t actually move them, but on the coldest days of the year they will spend a lot of time in the water, because the water is maintained at about 45 degrees. So if we have a short cold snap of 25 or 30 degrees, they’ll just stay in the water."
The zoo population includes many winter-hardy bird species, but they need more food with a higher fat content to handle the colder temperature.
"We modify diets, if we have to, for species that do in fact stay outside," Macek said. "We might increase the fat content of their diets to get them through the winter. The species that are truly tropical or even subtropical, we would move some of those inside. But we try to reduce the number of species we actually have to move, so most every (species) you see outside is going to be able to stay outside for most of the year, if not the entire year. We’re blessed in that we have a relatively mild winter."
During Wild Lights, human visitors can warm up with hot chocolate, meals and snacks available for purchase in the Lakeside Café. They can also bask in the warmth of live choral performances featuring holiday songs and more (complete schedule below). Wild Lights is a popular attraction, as evidenced by the 3,000 people who saw it last weekend.
"It’s a great time, and it’s grown every year," Macek said. "So people who came last year, it’s worth coming back this year for sure."
Tickets are available online or by calling 314-646-4771. Parking is free in the south lot, closest to Highway 40. The north lot will not be open.
Here is the lineup of live musical perfornaces during Wild Lights:
- Dec. 2: Bayless Junior High, High School and Show Choir
- Dec. 3: Hillsboro High School Vocal
- Dec. 4: Choir
- Dec. 9: and Middle School Orchestras
- Dec. 10: Choir
- Dec. 11: Chamber Choirs
- Dec. 16: Winfield Chamber Singers
- Dec. 17: Leaping Lizards and Choir
- Dec. 18: Winter Muny Kids and Washington Middle School Symphonic Band
- Dec. 19: St. Louis University High School Choir
- Dec. 20: Althoff High School - Crusader Innovation Christmas Choir
- Dec. 21: Hazelwood Central High School Choir
- Dec. 22: Steve and Lisa Duo
- Dec. 23: Concord Trinity Music Ministries
Take Highway 40 east to the Hampton Avenue exit, turn left at the light and take the next left onto Wells Drive at the roundabout. The south lot will be on the left.