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An Elephant Keeper at the Oregon Zoo Suggested Turning ZooLights Into a Drive-Thru

The zoo typically hosts up to 14,000 people a night walking amid the twinkling lights each holiday season.

WW presents "Distant Voices," a daily video interview for the era of social distancing. Our reporters are asking Portlanders what they're doing during quarantine.

One of the enduring lessons of 2020 is that almost anything can be turned into a drive-thru.

The latest test case: ZooLights, the annual holiday light display mounted by the Oregon Zoo. On Wednesday, Nov. 18, Gov. Kate Brown gave zoo officials the green light to turn what's typically a winter stroll through illuminated zoo grounds in Portland's West Hills into a nightly car safari, starting Nov. 22.

It's Nikki Simmons' job to figure out the details.

Simmons, the zoo's events coordinator, says the idea for a drive-thru ZooLights came from one of the elephant keepers. She spent months working on a route and other logistics to guide vehicles through the grounds.

So when the governor 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, which typically see up to 14,000 people a night walking amid the twinkling lights each holiday season.

That's millions of dollars in revenue. To salvage some of that, Simmons faced a barrage of questions: Will cars bother the tigers? How many vehicles can drive through the zoo each night? Which walkways are wide enough for a Subaru? What's the speed limit?

In this interview, she gives the answers.