By Jason Eisenberg
The nighttime sky over the Bronx Zoo is a lot darker than it usually is at this time of year.
After a successful 11-year run, the Wildlife Conservation Society decided to pull the plug on the zoo’s annual Holiday Lights extravaganza, which had become one of the most popular winter-season attractions in the entire metropolitan area.
Gone is the familiar glow from thousands of colorful lights set up throughout the zoo’s pathways, as is the wide array of illuminated animal, dinosaur and holiday-themed sculptures that left visitors of all ages in awe for the past decade.
In its place, the zoo is currently hosting a new event — called “Wild Winterland”— during normal daytime hours.
John Calvelli, the executive vice president of public affairs for the society, said the decision to cut the lights was tri-fold.
“First of all, we wanted there to be more of a focus on the animals. Also, in all honesty, it was partially about being fiscally responsible as well as adapting to the 21st century and these rough economic times,” he said. “But more than anything else, the main reason was as an act of conservation. The lights and the resulting greenhouse gas emissions were not really aligned with our policy of being a green institution. We wanted to be a leader in protecting wildlife and the environment as opposed to being followers.”
According to Mr. Calvelli, the Holiday Lights display required the use of more than 3,500 kilowatts of electricity per night, which means that the carbon dioxide emissions from the 33-day event was equivalent to what a three-person household gives off during an entire year.
As for future possibilities, Mr. Calvelli acknowledges that this cancellation of the lights is expected to be permanent and that the zoo is moving forward without plans to revisit the idea in the years ahead.
That’s not to say, all aspects of the previous program have been abandoned. Many of the everyday activities from the night attraction have been carried over to the new one, including ice-carving demonstrations, live reindeer, a petting zoo, a make-your-owns’mores tent and performances by local choral groups. For the kids, there are puppet shows, storytelling and a chance to make holiday cards and ornaments during craft workshops.
They have even added a few more programs.
One of the most popular new additions for this year is a horse-drawn wagon ride, which is led by a pair of huge Clydesdale horses. Also, on select days, guests can watch sea lions, snow leopards, tigers, grizzly and polar bears, penguins and other animals receive their holiday presents and participate in special enrichment activities.
In addition, the zoo has scheduled several special programs for each week throughout the event. On Saturday and Sunday, Dec. 20 and 21, there will be a Gingerbread Jungle Weekend, during which kids can decorate their own animal-shaped gingerbread cookies. Then, a collection of larger-than-life animal and holiday ice displays will be set up in the Events Tent, for Ice Wonders Week, which will take place from Monday, Dec. 22 through Saturday, Dec. 27. Finally, a Zoo Year’s Day Celebration will be held on Thursday, Jan. 1.
“Whenever you make changes, people are going to ask questions and some are certainly disappointed,” Mr. Calvelli said, “but, through the first two weekends of this event, attendance has been good, people seem to be enjoying some of the new attractions and taking advantage of the chance to see more of our animals than they could at night.”
While it might be unfortunate that future generations of children will miss out on such a memorable holidaytime experience, zoo officials believe that the public will respect the fact that this tough decision to switch off the lights was made with only good intentions.
“As wonderful as the Holiday Lights event was, when we put all the issues on the table, this decision was the right way to go,” said Mr. Calvelli. “With this daytime event, people can enjoy the company of family and friends, see all of our animals and still participate in many of the same activities, all while helping to save the planet. We are definitely hoping that this will be the start of a new holiday tradition.”
Wild Winterland will be open daily, from Saturday, Dec. 20 through Sunday, Jan. 4., and all special events and activities take place between 11:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. The Bronx Zoo entrance is located on Fordham Road, off exit 6 of the Bronx River Parkway. For ticket prices and other information, call 718-367-1010.