By Kristen Nicole Photography, courtesy Toledo Zoo
To decorate a ballroom for the holidays, hotels put up a tree, position poinsettias, tie bows and hang lights — pretty, but in most cases, a little pale in comparison with the Toledo Zoo, which encrusts its 74-acre grounds with more than 1 million lights during its annual Lights Before Christmas.
It is no wonder that the zoo has become a go-to venue for evening holiday parties since the Lights celebration began in 1986.
Each year, Lights Before Christmas gets larger as activities and attractions are added.
Depending on the night, zoo visitors and partiers might sing along with carolers, watch a carver turn a block of ice into an eagle, or climb aboard a 15-foot rocking horse or into an oversize snow globe for a photo op. And, of course, all who attend parties can walk through the light display, which takes about 90 minutes.
Plans are still being finalized for this year’s celebration, but as always, there will be some new features.
Venues for groups of all sizes
Four event venues fit groups of all sizes. The balcony of the Museum of Science, one of the zoo’s 11 Works Progress Administration-era buildings, accommodates parties of 120. Last year, partiers could watch model trains move through miniature towns and mountains on the main floor below and squeeze in a visit with Santa, who was stationed in the indoor theater attached to the museum.
Over at the African Lodge, a two-story venue for parties of 150 to 250, holiday decorations are kept to a minimum to cut down on clashes with the lodge’s authentic African decor. Attendees at parties held there simply step out of the building and into the zoo’s plaza for a nightly dancing light show. A classroom is decorated for holiday parties of 40. For parties of 300 to 400, an open-air pavilion is double-wrapped in tents, heated and festooned with twinkling lights and projected snowflakes.
More parties expected this year
Last year, nearly 60 company holiday parties were held during Lights (mid-November through Dec. 31). Michelle Doyle, assistant director of catering and group sales, expects more this year based on the number of parties already booked.
About 70 percent of holiday parties involve families, no surprise given the zoo’s and the holidays’ appeal with children. “The kids get mad if their parents go without them,” said Doyle.
Instead of a traditional reception, evenings can begin or end with hot cocoa and cider accompanied by trays of cookies or brownies. Meals can be as traditional as buffets of turkey, dressing and vegetables, or as contemporary as blackened mahi-mahi or chicken mushroom marsala.
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