How Chicago’s biggest zoo is staying afloat during the pandemic and keeping the holidays alive in the city


Sadie Romero, Editor-In-Chief

Chicago is home to one of the oldest zoos in North America. It’s one of three major U.S. zoos to still offer free admissions while housing over 1,000 animals year-round. Lincoln Park Zoo also hosts their annual ZooLights Presented by ComEd and Invesco QQQ as one of the free major events in Illinois during the winter. This year, they have had to undergo major changes to stay open to the community throughout the pandemic and to continue the holidays in Chicago.

Nicole Young, events manager for the zoo, outlined their year as one full of pivots and adjustments to keep the zoo afloat during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It was a whole new world,” Young said. “Everything was new and scary to us. We initially planned everythingwhich we are currently doing right nowin December, January and February for the whole next year. We pretty much have everything dialed up and ready to go in advance. So, when this [the pandemic] happened, we did not have to completely rethink everything. We just had to look at what we had and figure out how we could make it safe. How can we adjust it? How can we morph this into a safer situation?”

In the early stages of the pandemic, Young said they had not yet gathered their thoughts enough to compile an action plan that would keep their guests safe, in accordance with city and state regulations and guidelines, while also being feasible for them, as an institution, in such a short time. This led to the cancellation of a few events in the spring and early summer such as the Easter Extravaganza, the Mother’s Day Brunch and the Father’s Day Brunch.

Two months later, zoo officials began the virtual and hybrid catalog for the zoo. They decided to continue what they were doing, they just needed to connect with their community in a way that was safe.

They did so by launching some virtual events in early summer. They led various sessions of Virtual Meet and Greets, where guests could sign up to engage with a certain animal housed at the zoo through an online format. The viewers were able to learn about an animal through its caretaker doing training, learning the weights, what they eat, watching their exercises, etc. 

Another adjustment the zoo made to an already-existing event was their History Tours of Lincoln Park. During a normal year, the zoo does a Haunted History Tour during Halloween Time. They decided in the summer to host something similar, but switch the focus from haunted-themed to a general history tour, in efforts to draw more people in during the summertime and to keep them engaged.

One of their more successful virtual events was the Run for the Zoo that took place in June. Young said the event had amazing numbers and attendance, leading a great way to start off their virtual catalog of events.

Guests simply tracked the running that they did on their own and were able to submit it to the zoo’s partner for the event. This way they were able to evaluate the fastest times and announce a winner.

“It was still a little interactive, certainly not the same, but it went extremely well, and we raised a good amount of money for the zoo,” Young said. “We are excited for the prospect of looking into virtual runs for the foreseeable future. We are doing one right now, actually, called the Zoo Lights Challenge. We are continuing with these virtual runs trying to see if it is something we want to keep up with because it is something we were able to actually engage with people from the U.K. and various different states who normally would not be able to participate in our runs.”

In August, zoo staff felt they had gathered enough information and research on the virus to where they felt comfortable in bringing people back on the grounds for their first hybrid event, which was Breakfast with the Animals.

Since then, they have been able to collect large amounts of data on their guests: how long they stay, how they enter, which ways they walk, etc. This data then led them to be able to host larger events.

They have now set in place one-directional pathways, face-covering requirements, hand washing stations, and limits to where guests can sit only when eating and drinking. With these safety precautions in place, they are now able to welcome 1,200 guests on ground at once. This is allowed through their 25% capacity limit, while also allowing entrance in 30-minute increments.  

“We had to do a good amount of pivoting at the zoo,” Young continued, “and no one has done more pivoting, I think, than Brian Slattery, audience research & evaluation manager, and Marisa Shender, manager of zoo programs.”

“The zoo has always been big on collecting data,” Young said. “We have always done audience research, surveys and this type of information. They just had to pivot to a more COVID-focused audience research data…There is a weekly meeting for the COVID task force, which is built up of a ton of different departments at the zoo, where Brian and Marissa present this information weekly. It is that task force’s job to figure out what we do with this information, how do we make it so it better serves the zoo, and makes decisions based on that information.”

With the zoo’s gathered information and constant communication with the city, they were able to garner full support as a scientific institution from Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who visited the zoo and approved of its efforts to protect their guests.

The zoo is currently hosting their annual ZooLights, which is similar to past years, but with limited capacity and safety restrictions set in place. Young said they have brought back a lot of the fan-favorite displays. However, some were not able to remain this year, due to high-contact with the public, including the carousel, train and ferris wheel.

They added new experiences in place of the canceled ones, which some may have limited capacity or be ticketed. The Light Maze will still take place, which Young describes as a light path. This way, guests avoid running into each other and coming into more contact than necessary.

One of the new experiences the zoo introduced this year is the Enchanted Forest. It is a one-directional, lit pathway through the Pritzker Family Children’s Zoo, which includes music and 3D glasses available at the entrance to enhance the guest experience. 

These same enhancing glasses are made available to the public at the Light Maze and the Snowy’s Spirits & S’mores pop-up bar, which is also a paid attraction this year to reduce capacity.

In decor, Young said it is very similar, but in capacity, it is limited for safety purposes.

Meanwhile, employees will have masks, gloves and will work behind plexiglass.

Although guests used to come in at any time for no charge, this year, zoo staff are requiring pre-reserved tickets at $5 to monitor entrance times and assure capacity does not reach past 25%.

“For about 20 years we have been free,” Young said. “When we first started ZooLights it was a paid attraction, but we decided that we wanted to be free to all, so we made it a free event. This is the first time in a very long time that we have asked guests to pay to come to ZooLights. It is a small amount to offset the costs of producing ZooLights. We are just trying to make enough to keep it running.”

However, the zoo still made efforts to make itself accessible to community members unable to pay an entrance fee.

“Five dollars for a family of five who possibly are hurting in this pandemic might be a lot,” Young said. “So, we wanted to make sure that there was a chance for families and people to visit the zoo who will not be able to on those $5 nights. Every Sunday before a free night at 4 P.M. those tickets get released. Our hope is that those will be going to people who need them most. We are also working with a lot of community partners to get these free tickets out to a lot of people who we know need them and can utilize them. We are doing a lot of community outreach, making sure to help people out during this pandemic.”

The free nights will take place on Dec. 17, 21 and 29. 

For those unable to make it to ZooLights this year, the zoo is continuing to extend its outreach in a virtual format through online events and showings. One of the main virtual events is the Walk-through of ZooLights with the Producers. On Saturday, Dec. 19th, Joshua Rupp, director of events at Lincoln Park Zoo, and Scott Parish, owner of Illuminight Lighting, will be on the grounds showing some of the brighter areas: a light tunnel, Snowy’s Spirits & S’moresthe holiday pop-up baras well as a light maze. They will be walking through the creation of ZooLights and answering the questions of the guests who tune in.

For any and all access to these events, visit:

To make a donation to Lincoln Park Zoo visit: