For the 27th year in a row, the unique WildLights holiday extravaganza at The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens in Palm Desert will be one of Santa’s favorite stops in the Coachella Valley—so much so that plans call for him to visit the animal and environment conservatory on 16 separate nights from Nov. 26 through Dec. 28.

A visit with Santa is just one of the varied experiences being offered at the 2019 edition of the zoo’s key annual fundraising event. A sparking tunnel of lights synchronized to holiday tunes, life-sized desert-animal lanterns, and more than 1 million lights await visitors.

“There are a variety of activities that happen during WildLights on a nightly basis,” said Erin Scott, the senior manager for brand, marketing and public relations for The Living Desert. “Guests can visit with Santa. They can also just wander through the light displays around the zoo. New this year is what we’re calling ‘The Dazzling Gift.’ It’s a 15-foot-by-15-foot light installation that will be on Africa’s Savannah Landing. It’s a really big installation.”

For an additional fee, visitors can ride the Polar Express on a magical train ride through Gecko Gulch with falling “snow.” Guests can ride a carousel—specially decked out for the holidays—and make s’mores.

“We expect about 35,000 guests to enjoy WildLights this year,” Scott said. “WildLights is just an amazing community tradition. It’s a great way to get into the holiday spirit. We have local residents and members who come year after year, as well as visiting guests. It’s a great way to spend time with family and friends, and get into the holiday spirit.

“The Living Desert is a magical place. And, when you add the glow of holiday lights, it becomes even more magical. It’s just a great holiday tradition.”

The Living Desert is a zoo, of course—and visitors will get to enjoy the presence of animals that come out at night.

“Visitors will be able to see African wild dogs, cheetahs, bighorn sheep, the giraffe and zebras as they stroll the park under the lights,” Scott said. “Being able to see these animals at night adds an interesting element to anybody’s visit. Also, animal encounters will happen nightly between 6:30 and 8 p.m. in our amphitheater. A rotating variety of our animal ambassadors will be available to guests at these times. Guests will be able to get up close and meet some of our desert (animal) residents, get some good photo opportunities, and learn about these special animals. Also, there will be three ‘(zoo)keeper chats’ held throughout each evening: one at the African wild dog (station), one at the cheetah, and one at the warthog.”

The funds generated by WildLights ticket sales provide a lot of the financial support The Living Desert needs for park operations, as well as education and conservation programs.

“On an education-program level, The Living Desert welcomes about 40,000 school children each year through school field trips,” Scott said. “We partner with local schools and organizations for community outreach as well. We welcome guests of all ages to learn about and appreciate The Living Desert, as well as all the deserts of the world. We want to educate our guests about why deserts are important, and just how special deserts really are.”

What exactly does it take to stage a production of this scale every holiday season?

“It’s really a team effort,” Scott said. “The setup begins in September and continues until we’re ready for the opening in late November. There’s internal staff and external teams involved. So, it’s definitely a team effort from all sides.”

WildLights gives visitors a chance to see The Living Desert in a new light.

“There are so many activities around the zoo, and it’s a great way to get into the holiday spirit and enjoy the beauty of the desert, and offer valuable support to The Living Desert at the same time,” Scott said.

WildLights opens with a members’ only event on Tuesday, Nov. 26, and is open to all from 6 to 9 p.m. on select nights through Dec. 28 at The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens, at 47900 Portola Ave., in Palm Desert. Admission is $14; $12 for members; and $10 for children ages 3-12. For tickets and more information, including a complete schedule of WildLights nights, visit

Kevin Fitzgerald is the staff writer for the Coachella Valley Independent. He started as a freelance writer for the Independent in June 2013, after he and his wife Linda moved from Los Angeles to Palm...