Last year was a good one for the annual Holiday Lights at CALM, which during its monthlong run drew 54,000 attendees, more than 2,000 above its average.

Part of that is promotion, including landing on a Los Angeles Times’ list of the "best displays of Christmas lights in the West”; being featured in Westways, the Southern California AAA magazine; and again being selected the county's favorite family attraction in Bakersfield Life magazine.

Another advantage to the display that returns on Dec. 1 is Bakersfield's mild weather.

"We had some rain-out nights but the rest of the month was pretty warm," said Steve Sanders, chief of staff at the Kern County Superintendent of Schools, which runs the California Living Museum.

"People in Bakersfield, they don't like the real cold. But they're apt to go outside."

And go they do, taking in the 3 million-plus lights set in dazzling displays throughout the zoo grounds. 

Keeping things fresh each year is Josh Barnett and his Lightasmic crew, who balance classic displays with new presentations.

Sanders said even some location changes can refresh the show: "We move displays around so people can see them in a different setting."

LED bulbs, which now account for about 95 percent of the lighting also make for a nice display. 

New this year is a peacock with tail feathers with LED lights that rotate through different bright hues.

"It's just beautiful in terms of changing colors and so forth," he said, also noting "the difference between LED and regular lights, they just pop."

Other updates include a Bakersfield Sound sign that accompanies the display paying tribute to local music greats Buck Owens, Merle Haggard and Tommy Hays. That sign will be near the Candy Cane Express, the train that offers free rides during the event. (The carousel near the zoo entrance is also free to ride.)

The train ride will also be a bit brighter now that the the illuminated train tunnel has doubled in length to 120 feet.

A new animated display of two bighorn rams locking horns will be viewable near the animals' enclosure in honor of CALM's participation in the ram breeding program.

And Holiday Lights' menagerie of dinosaurs will gain another member along with a new lighted arch, palm trees and prehistoric foliage.

Sanders said the event continues to grow as people bring visiting relatives and friends during the month.

"I love talking to people who visit from out of town who ask why they can’t have a similar show in their community!"

Along with the lights, people can make an evening of it, bringing their own picnic or enjoying refreshments sold by Teen Challenge, which also runs the party tents that groups and businesses book for holiday parties during the event. The faith-based rehabilitation program also provides volunteers to help with parking. 

Speaking of volunteers, it takes about 1,000 for the run of the event, from parking and train operation to "trail elves" who help direct people toward the illuminated areas at the zoo.

Proceeds raised from Holiday Lights, which nets about $200,000 annually, help fund new exhibits and repairs at the nearly 35-year-old zoo.

"The thing about CALM is there are always capital needs out there," Sanders said.

Some projects include an aquarium-related display to join the touch tank and jellies in the California Coast room and a new corral for donkeys Wolfman Jack and Flapjack.

"They're kind of mouthy, they like chewing on the wood corral," Sanders said.

Not all the animals are viewable during the evening event but organizers have you covered. When attendees leave, they are given a slip of paper good for entrance to CALM during its normal operating hours.

"It's twice the admission for one price," Sanders said. "So many people come out to Holiday Lights but they haven't been during the day."

Stefani Dias can be reached at 661-395-7488. Follow her on Twitter at @realstefanidias.

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