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Turning ZooLights Into a Drive-Thru Was a Desperate Pandemic Pivot. It’s Now More Popular Than Ever.

Zoo officials expected to accommodate 600 cars a night. Instead, they’re averaging 1,040 each evening—240 vehicles an hour.

When the Oregon Zoo turned its annual holiday light display into a drive-thru, the scheme was a last resort.

Nikki Simmons didn't expect ZooLights to become more popular than ever.

"We're seeing people coming who haven't come in years," says the zoo's events coordinator. "They say, 'It's too cold,' or 'I can't walk over those hills,' or 'I don't want to chase my kids.'"

One of the enduring lessons of 2020 is that almost anything can be turned into a drive-thru. But what Simmons also realized is that letting people tour an attraction by automobile increases accessibility for people who are typically shut out. That means seniors, people with disabilities, and families with small children who found strolling the grounds daunting are now visiting via minivan.

In fact, the zoo's customer satisfaction surveys show higher scores for the nightly car safari than for the past several years of ZooLights.

One of those satisfied customers? A zoo employee who took his 93-year-old mother on the trip. "He said that she was so excited, and talked about it the whole way home," Simmons says. "He's now her favorite of her six children."

Simmons says the idea for a drive-thru ZooLights came from an unlikely source. "It was actually an elephant keeper who brought up the idea," she says. "We had been thinking about it a little bit, idea-cloud style. And we got an email one day from the elephant team, and it was a keeper that was like, 'Why don't we do a drive-thru?'"

So when Gov. Kate Brown in November announced a statewide freeze on entertainment venues—including zoo visits—Simmons appealed to Brown's office to let the car caravans continue. Brown said yes, a tremendous relief to zoo officials, who typically see up to 14,000 people a night walking amid the twinkling lights each holiday season.

That's millions of dollars in revenue. So Simmons spent months working on a route and other logistics to guide vehicles through the grounds. The cars travel at 3 mph around the edge of the zoo, away from the animals. (Stress measurements on the residents have shown no changes.) Patrons can order refreshments in advance—hot cocoa, elephant ears and caramel corn—and pick them up through the driver's side window.

Zoo officials expected to accommodate 600 cars a night. Instead, they're averaging 1,040 each evening—240 vehicles an hour.

If there's any snag to the triumph, it's that Metro, the regional government that owns the zoo, has been one of the Portland area's most prominent champions of alternative transportation. Simmons acknowledges the tension.

"Turning into a car culture, it's a little counterintuitive to the things that we see in Portland," she says. "But I think it does make sense for the pandemic. A lot of people aren't comfortable getting on public transportation, and they still need to find ways to get here and there. And then they still want to experience light shows for the holidays."

And for this year, by car is how Portlanders will experience ZooLights. The initial plan was to prepare both a walking and driving route. But Simmons and her colleagues don't think the governor is going to let attractions reopen any time soon.

"We just don't think the walk will happen," she says, "so we're starting to move those lights into the drive path."

GO: ZooLights at the Oregon Zoo, 4001 SW Canyon Road, oregonzoo.org.

Other Places to See Holiday Lights in Portland

Christmas Ships

See christmasships.org for route.

The Willamette stays lit. The festive flotilla is in its 66th year and has the distinction of being the longest continuously lighted boat parade in the country. Through Dec. 22.

Clackamas County Winter Fair

694 NE 4th Ave., Canby, clackamas.us/fair.

Oregon fairgrounds have hosted drive-thru food courts and haunted houses this year, so it makes sense they'd also pivot to holiday light shows. This one spans a quarter-mile, including a 100-foot illuminated tunnel. Through Dec. 31.

Winter Wonderland at Portland International Raceway

1940 N Victory Blvd., 503-823-7223, winterwonderlandportland.com.

Portland International Raceway was doing drive-thru holiday light shows before it was cool. Over 250 installations surround the track, making it (allegedly) the biggest display in the Pacific Northwest. Through Jan 2.

Beaverton Winter Lights

Multiple locations; see beavertonoregon.gov/474/Winter-Lights.

Peacock Lane voluntarily pulled the plug this year, but Beaverton has five separate displays spread around town to burn your retinas with merriment. Through Jan 3.

As One of Portland's Few Black Santas, Leroy Barber Couldn't Just Cancel This Year. His Solution? A Giant Snow Globe.

When Ice Rinks Closed Around the State, a Portland Figuring Skating Coach Still Found a Way for Her Students to Compete in the National Championships

Christmas Tree Sales Are Booming This Year—and One Portland Farm Wants to Make Sure Buying One Won't Wreck Your Marriage

Musician Michael Allen Harrison's Christmas Concerts Have Been a Portland Holiday Tradition for 30 Years. This Year, He's Coming Straight Into Your Home.

Turning ZooLights Into a Drive-Thru Was a Desperate Pandemic Pivot. It's Now More Popular Than Ever.