Bakersfield will have to wait a little longer to open one of its big presents, but HolidayLights will be brighter than ever when it returns to the California Living Museum on Nov. 30.
The new schedule seemed to be a hit for the annual event, featuring more than 3 million lights, last year when more than 67,000 people attended from the week after Thanksgiving through the first week of January. (The light show is only closed on Christmas Day.)
Last year's weather — dry and fairly warm for fall — also helped draw record crowds, according to Steve Sanders, chief of staff at the Kern County Superintendent of Schools, which runs CALM.
"We’ve been growing (in attendance), especially the last seven or eight years. ... Now that it's the 16th year, we're staring to hear from people who used to come as kids and are now bringing their families. It's a family tradition."
One of the people instrumental in bringing HolidayLights to life each year is Josh Barnett, who's been a part of the event since the beginning when the zoo board took a chance on the then-21-year-old creative visionary.
"It's hard to believe it's our 16th year," Barnett said. "Time has just flown by. ... This is so cool that this is what I get to do for a living."
Barnett and his Lightasmic! crew, which includes 10 full-time employees (and some seasonal help), brainstorm all year for light designs that are developed each spring and pitched to the board in June.
This year's event will feature a number of new and updated designs, Barnett said.
That includes a 100-foot-long pedestrian tunnel of lights by the Cats of California exhibit.
"We've had a light tunnel at the train. We now have one you can walk through. It's really, really cool."
Also new this year is a yeti display, which replaces the former fireworks atop the reptile house.
"The yeti we’ve been wanting to do for a few years," Barnett said. "Down below the display, we have sound. You can hear the yeti walk in the snow, open up trees and grunt. It's a whole new experience."
Even many of the existing displays will have a fresh look thanks to the continued effort to convert all the lights to LEDs.
"Our presentation is a lot better because we've been able to invest in the LEDs," Barnett said. "It’s so vibrant and bright. It's amazing to see the change from year one to now."
Only about 10 percent of the remaining lights are incandescent, all on displays, and Sanders' goal is to have Barnett's team convert it to an all LED display within the next two years.
They're doing something right out there off Alfred Harrell Highway, as the event draws businesses and groups for special gatherings, hosted in the tents run by Teen Challenge, which also runs concessions booths during the run. And scores of children, including those with special needs, are able to attend and experience the magic.
Last year's HolidayLights netted $300,000 and Sanders said they hope to raise at least that much again this year. Unlike in previous years, when funds were earmarked for new exhibits, much of what is raised in the next few weeks will go into improve existing zoo features including the mammal and birds of prey enclosures.
"One thing about CALM is there is always something to do out there," Sanders said. "We're really going to try and use this year's funds to upgrade existing exhibits. The zoo is 35 years old."
Barnett is also excited to have people come out and enjoy a night of holiday fun.
"I just want people to come out and enjoy the evening. Bring the whole family, forget about everything and just enjoy their family time — under the lights, of course."