Author: Mhairri Woodhall

Born in Hong Kong and raised in Vancouver, Mhairri now lives in Calgary with her husband and daughter. Specializing in family, luxury and culinary focused travel, Mhairri loves exploring her new province, nourishing her wanderlust and writing about her adventures.


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Calgary Zoo

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Imagine jumping into your favourite book. An enchanted world filled with vivid colours, beloved characters and a magical storyline. What a wondrous experience it would be. This is my four-year old daughter’s ultimate fantasy, and now, thanks to the immensely creative minds at the Calgary Zoo, her fairy-tale dream is a reality.      

ZooLights dazzles in its 29th season with a colourful kaleidoscope of 1.5 million lights, an outdoor skating rink, a myriad of holiday activities and, my daughter’s favourite, ‘Zooville’, which has transformed the Enmax Conservatory into Dr. Zeus’ classic tale of How the Grinch Stole Christmas.  

A nine month labour of love 

Since 1987 the Calgary Zoo has delighted visitors with its dreamlike luminary displays. Each year ZooLights welcomes an average of 118,000 guests over the three-week event, which runs from the last weekend in November through the first week in January. During this time, the zoo pours 33,185 cups of hot chocolate, hands out 10,000 candy canes and provides a spectacular experience for locals and visitors alike. 

While the striking beauty of ZooLights is undeniable, I’m most inspired by the countless hours spent on its creation. The event is 100 per cent imagined and organized by zoo staff, who take immense pride in surprising and delighting visitors of all ages. There are also employees, like Garrett Greenhall, Supervisor of Zoo Ready, who spend nine months of the year repairing lights and displays and setting-up the six themed-activity zones. It also takes a village of 200 volunteers, who donate 7,000 hours of their time to help pull off one of Calgary’s most brilliant holiday events. 

In speaking with Roz Freeman, Advisor, Special Events & Promotions, I learned that the guest experience is of utmost importance. Visitor feedback from previous years is always taken into account. And her team designs the event with the perfect balance of safety and fun in mind. Each season features original concepts for every activity zone and at least one brand new display. This year it’s a breathtaking 5.5 m (18 ft) holiday tree in Zone One, just outside of Penguin Plunge.  

A sparkling spectacle for every age 

Staff and visitor favourites, like Zone Three’s Tunnel of Love light show, choreographed to Hot Chocolate’s You Sexy Thing, have become an institution at ZooLights. The catchy tune and flickering lights were a hit with my daughter as well, so of course we had to dance through it three times. I also loved the dinosaur light display found just on the other side of the tunnel, while my husband enjoyed testing his hockey skills at Shoot to Win, presented by the Calgary Hitmen. As he was living out his fantasy of playing in the NHL, my daughter and I took full advantage of the Wildlife Carousel’s five-dollar unlimited ride ticket. Needless to say, leaving Zone Three wasn’t an easy feat.   

For older kids, Zone Four on the west lawn is the place to be. You’ll find a beautiful outdoor rink, with free skate rentals, and a live DJ on Friday and Saturday nights. There’s also an alien themed arcade, an astronaut training station and Maple Sugar Shuttle that serves up maple syrup taffy on a stick.  

And our hearts grew three sizes bigger 

Of course, for my daughter, it was the Grinch who stole the show – and her heart. Corinne Hannah, Horticulturist, Facilities & Grounds and her team have outdone themselves this year with their artistic displays, which include whimsical Grinch trees, brightly coloured lanterns and darling Zooville homes tucked away for children to discover. You’ll also find a storybook walk that tells the tale of how the Grinch’s heart grew three sizes. If you’re visiting on a Thursday watch out for the Grinch, as he loves to photobomb. Santa also calls Zooville home, so be sure to bring your camera for a picture with the big guy himself.  

Somehow, the Calgary Zoo outshines itself year after year. Each season builds upon the last, and feels both nostalgically familiar, yet fresh and new. I look forward to returning for ZooLights’ 20th year, and, if the design team is taking note, please make Zooville a part of the tradition. 

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