A Menagerie of Lights at the Houston Zoo

It's a weird feeling walking into the Houston Zoo after dark. I've been visiting the gardens since as early as I can remember, and every inch of it in memory is painted with the bright summer Houston sun. To walk under the trees in cold weather with every visible inch illuminated by festive colored bulbs was like being in an awesome alternate dimension.

TXU Energy has really upped the ante on their light presentation this year. Though much of the zoo is closed off save for the direct paths set by the event, what parts are available to walk through are simply incredible. Orange, purple, and yellow coats of bulbs turn the normally sleepy trees that line the reflection pool in a glowing forest that seems to stretch off forever into the darkness behind it. The huge willow tee that overlooks the duck pond is also ingenuously lit, weeping beams of clear light in a rain pattern above stations full of funnel cakes and s'more making stoves.

Some of the special exhibits are more impressive than others. The much-lauded Holly Berry, a 1957 Cadillac whose thousands of lights are times to old '50s rock tunes, just doesn't live up to the expectations terribly well. It's hard to appreciate a classic car in the dark, and impossible to admire a light show in the light leading to a sort of mediocre halfway point. The basic animal structures are more fun to gaze at honestly.

A real surprise that made it into none of the press releases was... actually I don't even know what to call it. A mechanical sideshow is probably the most accurate term. It's a series of small carriages, each featuring a bizarre, almost steampunk exhibit in each one. Victorian dolls dance against rotating mirror backgrounds, and in another there was a curious collection of potions and nostrums that had me remembering how good a game Bioshock was.

The prize of that collection, though, was the ramshackle Tardis you see pictured. Before you think I'm jumping to conclusions, the accompanying narrations make it quite clear that this particular phone booth is designed specifically to travel in both space and time. It was an unexpected and beautiful little pop culture surprise.

One thing I knew that I couldn't miss was the dollhouse village, and sure enough it was beyond all expectation. Coming through a lighted tunnel in the enchanted forest, it starts very small. There's a few houses here and there, warmly lit like stately manors on the edges of a bustling town. Then you turn the corner and there it is, a massive miniature settlement that features and huge network of trains and bridges surrounding the fairytale burg.

I brought my family to Zoo Lights with me, and I think my daughter would have stood looking at the village all night if I had let her. It was wonderfully whimsical, like a cartoon come to life, and I could all but see the imaginary pixies and gnomes living in those houses reflected in her wide blue eyes. There's nothing in the world like watching something fantastic going on in the mind of a child.

If there's any downside to Zoo Lights it's that you're pretty much out of luck if you've come for any of the animals. Most of the exhibits are closed for the night, though the aquarium, reptile house, and natural encounters buildings are open as usual. The path takes you along the flamingos, which are actually quite active and fun at night, but the big cats that are also on the tour seem to dislike the lights and in general made no appearances.

Overall, TXU Energy outdid itself, and we can only hope it will continue to improve the spectacle as the years pass and Zoo Lights becomes a tradition. It's a chance to experience the zoo in a whole new light, if you'll pardon the pun. Make sure you check it out before it's over.

Zoo Lights is open 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. until January 4. Closed Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

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