County's 'Holiday Lights' Event Free

Visitors are asked to bring a non-perishable food item instead.

The holiday lights will shine brighter. They'll also be free.

Essex County kicks off "Holiday Lights Spectacular" Saturday at Turtle Back Zoo, and it's the fourth year the event has taken place.

As a substitute for admission fees, patrons are asked to donate nonperishable food items for the needy. 

"This is a way of giving back," said Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo Jr. during a recent kick-off for the vent. "We're asking the people to come and enjoy, but also help other people who couldn't be here."

More than 40 holiday-themed animals and figures will light Turtle Back Zoo in the county's event. More than 100,000 lights were used in the setup that started shortly after Halloween.

"We light up everything here at the zoo," said Jeremy Goodman, zoo director. "All our trees ... animated figurines and even dancing penguins."

Goodman said the program is underwritten by sponsors, but  the initial cost for the animated displays is roughly $37,000. This year's sponsors include CocaCola, Covanta Energy, Prudential Financial, PSEG, the Zoological Society of New Jersey and the Essex County Parks Foundation.

DiVincenzo said the free admission is a result of the sponsors' contributions. He said they've raised roughly $150,000. In the past, admission to the event has been $7 for adults and $5 for children. "We're going to keep it to a minimum cost (for the county)," said DiVincenzo.

Goodman said some exhibits at the zoo will remain open during the event. These include the Essex Farm, Tam-ring Gibbons Reserve, Tropical Currents Aquarium and the Reptile House.

"Winter is a terrific time with the Arctic Wolves, Red Pandas ... a lot of the animals are more active in the winter compared to the summer," said Goodman. "Winter is a good time to come out and see what's going on."

Gail Hurley, of Hoboken, said she's originally from Arizona and has frequented the Phoenix Zoo's "Light Spectacular," but never attended Essex County's similar event.

"I'd be interested in seeing how this one is," she said. "I would come if it's early enough ... or maybe my husband and I will stop by to check it out if we can get a babysitter."

The event is from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m., Nov. 26 to Nov. 28, Dec. 3 to Dec. 5, Dec. 10 to Dec. 12 and Dec. 17 to Jan. 2.


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