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ZooLights illuminates Stone Zoo with holiday cheer

ZooLights shines brightly at Stone Zoo in Stoneham.
ZooLights shines brightly at Stone Zoo in Stoneham.Zoo New England

Santa Claus won’t be making it this year, but Stone Zoo will spread plenty of holiday cheer in the coming weeks with the return of its popular ZooLights illumination display at the Stoneham site.

Though the visitor experience will be limited due to COVID-19 safety restrictions, zoo officials hope the annual event, set to begin Friday, Nov. 27, will bring some brightness and joy to families amid the gloom of the pandemic, troubled economy, and national political upheavals.

Through Jan. 3, visitors can stroll in the evenings along tree-lined paths throughout the zoo, enjoying the sight of black bears, arctic foxes, Canada lynx, reindeer, and other animals illuminated by a myriad of colorful blinking lights. Crafted figures of animals and fictional characters, and large lantern displays will add to the magical effect.

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“I think it brings light into people’s otherwise dark lives now,” said John Linehan, president and CEO of Zoo New England, which operates Stone Zoo and Franklin Park Zoo in Boston.

The COVID-19 safety measures include requiring visitors to purchase timed tickets in advance, creating one-way paths to control guest flow, designating 6-foot distance markers, and employing enhanced cleaning protocols. The same measures are in place for daytime visits to the two zoos, which reopened in early June after being closed due to COVID-19.

Some event features have also been dropped this year. To avoid people gathering in one spot, there will be no gas-fired pits for making s’mores, no picture-taking with reindeer, and no visit from Santa. (The zoo has arranged Zoom sessions for children to visit St. Nick, and for children to receive virtual shout-outs from animals, with zookeepers supplying the voices).

But despite the constraints, Linehan predicts the event, which in past seasons has attracted as many as 60,000 people, will again be welcomed by the public.

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“People know they have to wear masks and follow all these safety precautions, but I think they will be happy they can safely go somewhere with their families, be together, and do something,” he said.

ZooLights began in 1996 when Skip and Shirley LaBrie, a Peabody couple that had for many years presented a dazzling holiday display at their home, donated their extensive collection of crafted figures and other materials to Stone Zoo to replicate the event at its site. The zoo celebration fast became a well-attended attraction.

“It was really something that nobody else was doing and people were craving it,” Linehan said. “Now it’s built up as a tradition and so many families can’t wait to come back to it every year.”

“It’s a great way to engage people and have them interact with the animals. We have a lot of animals that are really cold-hearty,” he said, citing for example black bears and arctic foxes. Animals that require warmer temperatures remain indoors during ZooLights evenings but visitors can still see some of them behind glass windows.

A new element this year is the display of several of the large crafted lanterns featured in the inaugural Boston Lights celebration that illuminated Franklin Park Zoo from Aug. 21 through Nov. 15, according to Brooke Wardrop, senior director of marketing and communications for Zoo New England.

National Grid, which helped fund Boston Lights, is also lead corporate sponsor of ZooLights this year.

“This is a wonderful opportunity for visitors to enjoy the Stone Zoo and all it has to offer this holiday season,” Marcy L. Reed, president, National Grid, Massachusetts, said in an e-mailed statement. “On behalf of the customers and communities we serve, we are pleased to do our part in support of such a joyous experience.”

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ZooLights takes place at Stone Zoo, 149 Pond St., Stoneham, from 4 to 9:30 p.m. (last entrance at 8:30 p.m.), Nov. 27 through Jan. 3; closed Christmas Day. Tickets ($12.95 for members, $13.95 for non-members, with discounts for “four-packs”) must be purchased in advance at www.stonezoo.org; they will not be sold at the door.

John Laidler can be reached at laidler@globe.com.