More than 3 million lights are illuminating the Columbus Zoo & Aquarium for its annual Wildlights display, celebrating its 25th season through Jan. 5.
That's a far cry from the 100,000 lights that zoo leaders strung around the lake in winter 1988 to kick off what they hoped would draw visitors, even through snow and ice.
"We wanted to extend our season," said Patty Peters, the zoo's vice president of communications. "We have animals to take care of every single day of the year and yet we didn't have anyone coming over the winter."
Peters, who has worked at the zoo since 1979, has seen the evolution of the yearly event that's become a tradition for many families and now draws about 400,000 visitors during its six-week run.
One of her most memorable moments at Wildlights came in the last week of 1991 when the zoo hit a milestone in the form of its 1 millionth visitor. Peters said the zoo now greets more than 2 million visitors each year.
Peters also fondly remembers the grand opening of the now-defunct skating rink, which included an appearance by professional figure skater Peggy Fleming. Zoo Director Emeritus Jack Hanna had met her on a TV show and asked to visit Columbus.
Three years ago, the rink went the way of roasted chestnuts, which the zoo decided to do away with because, as Peters said, they made for good atmosphere but weren't making money or keeping guests happy.
"They'd buy them and the roasted chestnuts would taste like roasted chestnuts, which don't taste good," she said, laughing.
Although Wildlights grows each year and features of the event come and go, Conservation Lake has always been the staple. It was the only zoo area draped with lights in the event's first year, and this year's animated lights display on the lake is programmed to brand-new music and features 25 lighted trees in recognition of the silver anniversary.
The show plays every 30 minutes from 5 to 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and from 5 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Other elements added to the zoo's itinerary through the holidays include a reindeer corral, live holiday music performances and Santa's Holiday Home at Holiday Village, where kids can visit St. Nick and decorate cookies with his wife.
Peters pointed out that while there will be plenty to see during Wildlights, the polar bears will be off exhibit and in their dens in hopes of one becoming pregnant with a cub.
Visitors also should come during the zoo's daylight hours if they expect to see gorillas, she said. "They're pretty grumpy the next day if you keep them up late," she said of the particular primates.
To get an up-close view of the animals, the zoo offers a behind-the-scenes of Wildlights tour that takes cocoa-toting visitors around the park after hours.
For a detailed list of Wildlights activities and to purchase tickets, visit columbuszoo.org.