Setting up hundreds of thousands of lights at the Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium is a tough job — just ask Justin Pfeiffer.
As the zoo's ground horticulturist and Zoolights coordinator, Pfeiffer and his team of 25 employees and volunteers from the operations department spend weeks setting up the displays for the annual event.
This year, for the 34th annual Zoolights event which opens Friday, Pfeiffer took things to the next level.
"This is my sixth year, and we have put up more lights than I've ever put up before," Pfeiffer told The News Tribune while touring the zoo this week. "We're over 800,000."
That's 100,000 more lights than last year's event and includes new displays, like green-and-blue hockey sticks representing the Seattle Kraken, light-up butterfly wings for selfies and a new tunnel of lights.
"We try to make it better every single year," Pfeiffer said.
Also new this year, people can pay to visit scuba-diving Santa in the zoo's Pacific Seas Aquarium, see jellyfish, hammerhead sharks and a giant Pacific octopus in the aquarium's exhibits and touch animals in the Tidal Touch Zone. Cost is $200 for members and $250 for non-members for groups up to six people. The cost includes Zoolights admission.
Guests can also pay for an up-close meet and greet with goats dressed in holiday garb to feed and groom them. Cost is $100 for members and $150 for non-members for groups of five. Cost includes Zoolights admission.
The vintage Paul Titus Carousel will be back up and running at Zoolights this year for $2 a ride for non-members and $1.50 per ride for members.
Visitors also can expect familiar displays, like the Seahawks Tree, Sasquatch, a 23-foot-high Mount Rainier, two Narrows Bridges, a 100-foot giant pink-and-orange octopus, and the Flame Tree, which has been a staple at Zoolights for 33 years and uses more than 30,000 lights itself.
Zoo staff start testing lights in September to see what's working and what might need to be replaced. In October, the lights started going up.
Zoolights isn't without its challenges, the biggest being the weather. With thousands of lights, there's always something to fix, Pfeiffer said.
At the end of the day, it's a fulfilling job, Pfeiffer said. His 9-year-old son gets to tell his friends at school that his dad is the Zoolights guy.
"It means that I get to be part of the tradition that everybody gets to come and see," Pfeiffer said.
Sometimes during Zoolights, Pfeiffer said, he'll walk around and watch people enjoy the staff's hard work.
"Honestly one of the best things is just listening to people ooh and aah and, 'Oh, wow, look at that. That's so cool.' And hearing little kids being impressed and it's just — that's really one of the better things about Zoolights for me," he said.
When: Nov. 26 through Jan. 2. For COVID-19 safety, masks must be worn indoors and outdoors at the event for all guests ages 5 and over.
Hours: 4:30-10 p.m. nightly, except for a two-night closure on Dec. 24 and Dec. 25.
Where: Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium, 5400 N. Pearl St., Tacoma.
Tickets: Tickets must be purchased online at pdza.org/zoolights. Timed online tickets are required for entering and are limited to ensure social distancing on site.
Prices: Monday through Thursday, ticket prices are $12 for general admission and $6 for members. Friday through Sunday, prices are $15 for general admission and $7.50 for members. Children 2 and younger are free. Parking is also free.