Little Rock Zoo’s GloWILD is Back for a Spectacular Second Year


When it comes to the holiday season, everyone has got that “something” they just can’t go without. Maybe it’s your favorite festive sweater. Others might be counting down the days until peppermint mocha makes its debut on café menus everywhere. There is, however, one part of the fall and winter months that is beyond debate. It brings together families and friends. It dazzles, excites and inspires people from age 9 to age 99. It’s an excuse to get outside, bundle up and grab your favorite warm winter drink. It is, quite literally, a bright spot in the darkness wrought by the end of daylight saving time: Lights!


We’re not just talking about any old string of bulbs, though. This year, from Nov. 3 to Jan. 7, we’re looking at the best and brightest of them all. GloWILD, the stunning lantern exhibit that lit up the Little Rock Zoo for the first time last year, is back again with even more to see and experience. It’s a whole new way to see the Zoo after hours, and it brings visitors from all over to explore and bask in the twinkling glow.



A fox peers off a ledge at the Little Rock Zoo’s 2022 GloWILD exhibit.

Right off the bat, the sheer magnitude of GloWILD sets it apart from the myriad lights that dot trails and houses across the state. The Zoo partners with Tianyu Arts & Culture, the largest Chinese lantern festival producer in North America, to design and put on the event. The exhibit spans across the Zoo, with a winding path of expertly designed displays lit by more than 50,000 LEDs.


Dustin Bean, special events coordinator for the Zoo, explains that guests can not only enjoy the beauty of the lanterns, but take a bit of Tianyu’s culture home with them as well. 


“There’s a lot of pride that goes into the construction,” Bean says. “They’re handcrafted steel frames, lit with LED light bulbs, covered in silk and hand-painted before they’re set up around the Zoo. There’s a lot of work that goes into these beautiful lanterns.”


He also highlights the hard work that everyone involved in GloWILD puts in. 


“It’s about trusting our staff to shine,” Bean explains. “When you look around and all of the departments of the Zoo are excited to work together on a common project — that sense of pride we have for our community is the same one we have for our staff, who are willing to roll up their sleeves and do whatever it takes to make it successful.” 


All of the work that goes into GloWILD — the research, the crafting of lanterns, the countless staff and volunteer hours put in — comes together to create a truly one-of-a-kind nighttime holiday experience. 


Zoo Director Susan Altrui stresses the unique nature of the exhibit. “Once you see it, it’s something that you won’t forget,” she says. “It’s really not like any light show you’ve ever seen before.”


According to Joy Matlock, the Zoo’s director of Marketing and Development, the Zoo received overwhelmingly positive feedback from last year’s exhibits, with comments rolling in even through the spring and summer months. Visitors described the experience as though they were being transported out of the city, the state and even this reality. 


“The feeling that you have walking through, and the feeling that you walk away with, is very mystical and ethereal,” Matlock says. “People felt transported to another place. It’s otherworldly.”



A peacock’s feathers are outstretched and glowing on a path at the Little Rock Zoo as part of the 2022 GloWILD exhibit.

In an effort to make this year’s GloWILD “twice as bright,” the Little Rock Zoo and Tianyu have nearly doubled the number of lanterns and elements. All of the animals featured last year will make their return alongside a variety of new displays in three uniquely themed zones. 


The Tranquil Forest path includes a whole host of animals, along with interesting additions like the Cactus Corridor. A major focal point along the path this year is the Wisteria Corridor, which is a gorgeous tunnel of draping wisteria filled with twinkling LEDs. Not only is it a thrill to walk through, it’s also the perfect photo op for everything from date night to family night. 


The animal lanterns are modeled largely after current inhabitants of the Zoo. Rhinos, elephants, tigers, bears — even salamanders and frogs (on a much, much larger scale) will be on display. 


“Another cool thing to see is that we’re exploring other animals that aren’t in our living collection,” Bean adds. “It’s great to expose people to animals beyond just what we have here.”


Altrui says, “it grows appreciation for the animals in a different way, too. We have some conservation facts that go alongside each of these animals, so it’s an interesting way to learn about animals in a new light,” pun intended. 


The second of GloWILD’s themed zones is perfect for every kid (or kid at heart). New this year is an entire Prehistoric Creatures section dedicated to the scaly behemoths. Lanterns in this section include an animated stegosaurus, a triceratops pair, several other giant lizards with difficult-to-pronounce names and, of course, the mighty Tyrannosaurus rex. 


Besides being incredible to look at, Altrui explains the educational purpose the artfully crafted lanterns serve. “I think dinosaurs can teach us a lot about conservation in our world right now,” she says. “We have a lot of animals that are headed toward extinction, so dinosaurs are a reminder of the animals that we might lose. It’s a great way for us to reflect on the past and to think about our future.”


Not very often does a light display serve as an object lesson, but this is a lesson that’s vital to the Zoo’s purpose. Though the extinction of the dinosaurs was eons ago, the fact that they no longer roam the Earth is a poignant reminder that none of the beautiful live animals at the Zoo are promised to be around forever. Many of the Zoo’s animals are endangered species, and GloWILD plays a part in educating the public on the importance of protecting their habitats and our shared environment. 


“That’s ultimately why the Zoo is here,” Altrui adds. “We want people to learn about the conservation of animals, about wildlife and wild places. If you come away with a little token of knowledge, and that sparks your curiosity to learn more about the living animals we have here and their wild places, then that means we’re doing our job.”


Last but far from least, GloWILD has added a special section and a few aesthetic touches to bring home the holiday-lights feel and expose guests to animals they wouldn’t get to see during the day. In the Arctic Winter zone, visitors can see lounging polar bears, snow owls on the hunt and a pack of arctic wolves, among others. Not only found among the cold-weather-inclined animals, a handful of holiday-themed displays, like snowmen, presents and Christmas trees, will be placed along the path. 


“You can walk around, enjoy the lights, maybe drink some hot cocoa and enjoy time with your family,” Altrui says. “That’s the great thing about the Little Rock Zoo, that we are family-friendly and that anyone can enjoy this event.”


A golden brown bear and its cub sit on the ground next to glowing grass blades at the Little Rock Zoo.

Along with the stunning visuals, GloWILD features several interactive elements for kids and adults alike to enjoy. The Zoo’s Nature Play playground will be open during the event and will be enhanced with LED moon swings, color-changing cubes and stepping stones. Throughout the actual display path, several of the lanterns will be animated through movement and light changes. Perhaps the king of them all is the massive peacock — a crowd favorite and returning exhibit from last year — that greets visitors at the main entrance, raising and lowering its feathers. The Zoo’s Over-the-Jumps Carousel and Arkansas Diamond Express train will also be operational every night. 


To round out your visit, Café Africa will have a variety of warm wintery treats and drinks available; the Saf


An owl glows in the dark at the Little Rock Zoo as part of the GloWILD exhibit.

ari Gift Shop will remain open as well. With the snacks, sips and sights all covered, it’s easy to make a whole night (or several) out of a visit to GloWILD. 


In keeping with the Zoo’s mission to make visits accessible for all, regardless of their accommodation needs, GloWILD will have a special “sensory night” with dimmer lights, softer sounds and plenty of areas to step away from all the action. Matlock describes it as “a softer, gentler GloWILD.” She stresses that everyone deserves to visit, learn from and enjoy the Zoo, and that no one should have to miss out because of a light, sound or other sensitivity. 


For the first time this year, the Zoo is also hosting a variety of themed “appreciation nights’’ to give back to the community heroes who’ve given so much to all of us. On Sundays throughout November, first responders (Nov. 6), members of the military (Nov. 13), teachers (Nov. 20) and health care workers (Nov. 27) will each be recognized. Members of these groups who show up to their appreciation night will receive a discounted admission price. 


Also helping to celebrate the holiday season are Santa Sundays, taking place on the last Sunday of November and the first three Sundays of December. On these days, Santa will be in Café Africa to hang out, listen to your holiday wish lists and take photos. There will also be live music courtesy of singer/songwriter Christine DeMeo. 


A pathway is lit up in shades of pink and purple at the Little Rock Zoo as part of the GloWILD Exhibit.

Last but certainly not least: To ring in the New Year on Dec. 31, the Zoo will hold a New Year’s Eve party from 5:30-8:30 p.m. Games, prizes and party favors will abound at this family-friendly event, and there will be a live DJ as well. Each of these additional events is complementary with the price of the ticket, so there are plenty of ways to fit a visit to GloWILD into your holiday calendar. 


It’s worth mentioning the “repeatability” aspect of GloWILD. Guests can visit multiple times and enjoy different facets of the exhibit. Since the event runs through the entire holiday season, it’s also a great place to bring family and friends visiting from out of town — and, depending on where your “festive stress levels” are at this time of year, it’s a great way to get relatives and children out of the house for a few hours. There’s a lot to see this yearn and plenty of time to see it, over and again. 


“We want it to create traditions for families,” Bean says. “It’s something where families can come and escape that chaos, whether it’s one hour or four hours that they’re here.”



A pink dinosaur stands at the edge of green glowing shrubbery at the Little Rock Zoo.

In just two years, the event has quickly become the largest event the Zoo puts on, both from a production and an attendance standpoint. Over 30,000 people visited the exhibit last year, and the Zoo hopes to smash that record this time around. It’s clear that GloWILD is on its way to becoming a beloved holiday staple, and for the Little Rock Zoo, its success couldn’t come at a better time. 


“There was a void in Central Arkansas for something that was so unique and so different from other holiday traditions,” Matlock says. “Having something new, different and magical was something this area needed.” 


Matlock also emphasizes the need for a “lifted experience” during this time of year. Many of the stressors that come naturally around the holidays have been exacerbated by the pandemic, and that feeling doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon. A few hours spent among the glowing lanterns, secluded and safe from the outside world, can be a source of hope and relief that’s increasingly hard to find these days. 

Glow-in-the-dark snails are lined up around trees at the Little Rock Zoo as part of this year’s GloWILD exhibit.

The event, hosted in partnership with the Arkansas Zoological Foundation, is also a major source of fundraising. As the nonprofit fundraising arm of the Zoo, AZF is a key player in garnering sponsors for the event and ensuring that GloWILD goes off without a hitch. 


“Any time we have an event like this, we like to remind people that money you spend at the Zoo goes directly to support our operations,” Altrui explains, “which directly supports the care of our animals and to help our mission of conservation and learning.”


In capturing the Zoo’s overall feeling about GloWILD, and why everyone was eager to bring it back this year, Altrui says, “We’re really proud of this light show. We’re really proud of our partnership with Tianyu, and we’re proud of the sponsors that have helped make this possible. We’re especially proud to be able to bring this to Little Rock and the Arkansas community.” 


Everything the Zoo does is to further its mission of inspiring people to value and conserve the natural world. Seeing all of these breathtaking creatures in lantern form is an essential addition to any holiday plans, but they’re not a replacement for the real thing. The Zoo hopes that in addition to making their way through the dazzling lighted paths at night, visitors will be inspired to come back and see their favorite animals in the flesh — and to learn a little more about what they can do to make sure these beautiful creatures are around for years to come.